Texas, 78207: America’s Most Radical School Integration Experiment
By Beth Hawkins | October 17, 2018
In the nation’s most economically segregated city, an innovative new approach to school integration designed to address poverty, trauma, and parental choice is working
San Antonio, Texas 78207
J.T. Brackenridge Elementary sits on the eastern edge of zip code 78207, which is the way people refer to the Mexican-American community that surrounds the school. Located just west of downtown San Antonio, the neighborhood is as rich with art and history and culture as the rest of the city. Yet it’s a world apart.
To travel to or from the school is to take a compressed trip through time. Head east, and every few hundred feet Guadalupe Street presents a different line of demarcation — each a visual reminder of who lived here and what life was like during those respective eras of human habitation.
There’s Alazan Creek, one of the spring-fed waterways that drew nomadic tribes and Spanish conquistadors, now a concrete culvert lined, not with public art, like the city’s iconic Riverwalk, but with untamed scrub. After Guadalupe crosses the river, the road widens and rises, going over busy train tracks that conveyed the raw materials that were used to build the modern metropolis, and then the scrapyards to which spent rebar and steel are returned, to be reforged as the city’s next iteration.
The final boundary is an elevated interstate, a current-day conduit in the sky that bisects the cramped 25-foot lots of the 78207 from the lofts, the leafy, art-filled riverside promenades, the tail-to-snout eateries, and the brewpubs of the city’s prosperous core.
In this daily school commute up and down Guadalupe Street, parents and students are presented with a vivid illustration of their stark reality: By virtually any statistical measure, San Antonio is the most economically segregated city in the United States. Its poorest neighborhood, the 78207, is located a scant few miles from the epicenter of the third-fastest-growing economy in the country. But as the city as a whole thrives, the residents on the West Side are all but locked out of the boom.
Into this divided landscape three years ago came a new schools chief, Pedro Martinez, with a mandate to break down the centuries-old economic isolation that has its heart in the 78207.
In response, Martinez launched one of America’s most innovative and data-informed school integration experiments. He started with a novel approach that yielded eye-popping information: Using family income data, he created a map showing the depth of poverty on each city block and in every school in the San Antonio Independent School District — a color-coded street guide comprised of granular details unheard of in education. And then he started integrating schools, not by race — 91 percent of his students are Latino and more than 6 percent are black — but by income, factoring in a spectrum of additional elements such as parents’ education levels and homelessness.
To achieve the kind of integration he was looking for, he would first have to better understand the gradations of poverty in each and every one of his schools, what kinds of supports do those student populations require, and then find a way to woo affluent families from other parts of the city into San Antonio ISD schools to disrupt these concentrations of unmet need. Martinez’s strategy: Open new “schools of choice” with sought-after curricular models, like Montessori and dual language, and set aside a share of seats for students from neighboring, more prosperous school districts, who would then sit next to a mix of students from San Antonio ISD, where 93 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Only a few years into the experiment, the effort has reshaped the educational landscape, and redefined the aspirations of its students and educators. The district’s diverse-by-design schools now have long lists of well-to-do families waiting for a seat to open up alongside students from working-class households and destitute neighborhoods. Families from the affluent communities on the city’s north and northwest sides are indeed now eagerly applying to share classrooms with families from the 78207.
Student learning has accelerated — in both the new, marquee programs and existing schools.
When Texas released its 2017-18 school performance scores last month, San Antonio ISD, with its 50,000 students and 90 schools, was named one of the fastest-improving districts in the state. The system as a whole had risen from the equivalent of an F rating to a C in just the past three years. Thirty-four of its schools earned the state’s “distinction” designation.
The number of San Antonio ISD schools that would have landed on the state’s “improvement required” list using 2018 criteria fell by half. Using the same calculus, the number of students enrolled in a low-performing school plummeted from 47 percent to 16 percent, the largest decrease among urban districts in the state.
With arguably the nation’s most radical school integration experiment reaping early wins, what Martinez says he needs most now is time — to get his still-disadvantaged schools from a C to an A, to change beliefs at all levels about what success looks like, and to stave off a gathering storm of opposition from those who disagree with his maverick approach.
National experts on school improvement are buzzing about Martinez’s work. But if he is to win over his detractors — and to reach the most profoundly destitute children within a larger community marked by poverty — he needs the same sense of excitement his work is garnering outside San Antonio to catch hold in his own segregated backyard.
74 Films: Inside the SAISD integration experiment:
A boy from the barrio takes charge
Martinez is himself an immigrant from Mexico and a first-generation college-graduate success story. Soft-spoken and trained in finance — not as a teacher — he was a curious hire back in 2015 for the south Texas district.
San Antonio ISD is one of 17 school districts within the city limits, but its blanket poverty is no accident. The district’s boundaries were drawn decades ago to neatly follow the 1940s-era red-lined maps segregating blacks and Latinos into what is now an urban core. By contrast, the district located to the immediate north, Alamo Heights, has a poverty rate of 20 percent.
San Antonio ISD’s school board president, Patti Radle, has lived and worked in the 78207 — the district’s most impoverished neighborhood — for nearly half a century. A former J.T. Brackenridge teacher and community activist, she believed Martinez, like her, would see her neighbors’ pride and resilience, and not fall victim to what she calls “the pobrecito” — “poor thing” — phenomenon.
Radle listened to Martinez describe his family being forced to move every time their landlord figured out how many people were stuffed into their tiny apartment. She became convinced he understood the weight of students’ challenges, as well as the dangers of well-intended but misguided educators trying to protect them from rigorous academic material.
Martinez believed the neighborhood kids could succeed on par with their wealthy peers, just as he had done, and wouldn’t settle for less, she says.
“His attitude and his insight seemed outstanding,” she said.
She and her fellow board members told Martinez his job was nothing less than to create a school system that would serve as a model for big-city districts throughout the nation.
Never mind that these are the marching orders every urban school board chair gives every new superintendent — as the product of a similar community Martinez didn’t hear the directive as a rhetorical one. Neither of his parents made it past second grade, and both worked long hours to feed their 10 kids. At 16, Martinez went to work, too, to help support the family. He knew what creating a generation of college graduates eager to come home to live and work would mean for the 78207.
But knowing that nearly every student in the district was low income told Martinez only the size of the problem, not anything useful in terms of addressing it. In search of better information than what school districts traditionally compile, he turned to census data to create the color-coded map showing the wide variation of levels of poverty from one school to another.
After that, Martinez rebooted dozens of schools, reorganizing them around the kinds of programming — Montessori, dual language, gifted and talented — that families in wealthy communities paid private school tuition for. He recruited master teachers and pushed existing ones to retrain. Lacking the money of neighboring districts, he tapped civic organizations and philanthropies to pitch in.
And he did it fast: “We had to do something completely different,” he says, “knowing we can’t say to the kids, ‘Hey, can you stay home for a couple of years while we retool?’”
Fast-forward three years. Martinez has opened an eye-popping 31 schools of choice. Families — some of them affluent parents who previously didn’t give the district a thought — are clamoring to get their children in. Using what he now knew about the extreme poverty of some of his families, Martinez’s team created a sophisticated lottery system that carves out a percentage of those seats for the neediest students.
Philanthropy is writing big checks. The number of high school graduates going not just to college, but to selective colleges has soared. And Martinez has made sure to build cultural bridges to enable his graduates, many of whom had never before left Texas, to succeed there. In 2017, for example, he organized a road trip to Middlebury College in Vermont so the families of four San Antonio ISD students got the chance to settle their kids in at the elite liberal arts school, while catching a glimpse of what life is like in such an unknown setting.
The education world took note. In February, the Center on Reinventing Public Education brought dozens of leaders of cities that are home to large, struggling school districts to San Antonio to tour the new schools and to hear how Martinez managed to raise the bar so fast — and on a shoestring.
The center’s director, Robin Lake, credits Martinez’s willingness to listen to what the community wanted and to build first on its strengths for the quick buy-in he got. “He really took the time to hear about what was missing in kids’ educations,” she says, and to learn what would empower teachers.
“Going barrelling forth with a top-down solution the community isn’t going to feel good about is the past,” Lake adds, referring to a common criticism of some education reform efforts. “Listening to the community and creating the things they want is the work of the future.”
It appeared Martinez was well on his way to fulfilling his marching orders. But change agents have a way of attracting headwinds.
Last winter, the 48-year-old schools chief announced a plan to invite a charter school network to take over a struggling elementary school slated at that point for closure by the state. Almost overnight, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel declared war. The union filed a lawsuit. Critics vowed to oust the school board that hired Martinez. Posters appeared on telephone poles with the hashtag #byepedro.
Now, a new challenge looms. Can Radle and her school board colleagues stand firm, mustering enough support for Martinez’s efforts to continue to spread beyond the impoverished but gentrifying and historic parts of the district where San Antonio ISD’s most successful new schools have opened? Can families have the same excitement and progress in its most profoundly isolated neighborhoods, in schools like J.T. Brackenridge? Can they change expectations fast enough to interrupt generations of complacency?
Martinez and Radle say they have to if they are to create a system that is, in fact, a national model for breaking down the economic segregation handicapping poor children in every big-city school district in the country.
The map that changed the integration conversation
When Martinez was a toddler, his 2-year-old sister died, a tragedy that could have been prevented if his family had access to decent health care in Aguascalientes, Mexico. His father, Rodrigo, orphaned and forced to drop out of school in second grade, realized his family needed to leave if they were to do more than subsist. Rodrigo moved to Chicago and for two years saved money to bring Pedro, his mother, and his surviving siblings north. The local parish helped the family get on its feet, but Rodrigo always had to work two jobs and never earned more than $7 an hour.
In sixth grade, Pedro had a teacher who was determined to push him to live up to his potential. The tough love was effective, and Martinez entered Benito Juarez High School with 12th-grade math skills. He started high school in a class of 700. By the time Martinez graduated, there were 170 seniors left.
He had worked his way up to assistant manager at McDonald’s, but Martinez knew he could do much, much better. He took a leap of faith and enrolled in college, earning a degree in accounting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then an MBA at Chicago’s DePaul University.
Martinez was working in finance for the Archdiocese of Chicago when Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan recruited him to work for the district. After serving as its chief financial officer, in 2012, he was named deputy superintendent of Nevada’s Clark County Schools, the nation’s fifth-largest district, then superintendent in Reno, Nevada, and finally, superintendent-in-residence at the Nevada Department of Education.
Watch: One on One with Superintendent Pedro Martinez:
When he visited Radle’s 78207 neighborhood, Martinez was struck by the same things other newcomers are: streets no wider than alleys where houses the size of garden sheds slump, rotting into the ground because there are no sewers to prevent frequent flooding.
“What I saw in my (district’s) neighborhoods were homes that hadn’t had air conditioning in decades,” he said. “And this is a community where the weather reaches 110 degrees with humidity for several months of the year.”
Then there is the street in the 78207 that Radle calls “the place where the money ran out,” a series of intersections where modern infrastructure simply quits, the sidewalks disappear, and roads sporting as much grass as asphalt narrow from two lanes to one.
Martinez thought he knew poverty, both personally and as a professional committed to eradicating it. But what he saw in San Antonio was familiar and yet shocking. The tight-knit families and their warmth reminded him of the neighborhood where he grew up. But the scope and depth of the need was stunning.
“This is the first time that I experienced a district where the entire district had such a density of poverty,” he says. “I could see very quickly because of the demographics of the children and the poverty levels, the density, that we needed to understand it in a deep way.”
Median family income in San Antonio ISD is $30,363. One in five adults aren’t high school graduates, and 42 percent don’t work. Half of the students live in single-parent households. Constant evictions mean up to 40 percent of students shuffle from one school to another.
As daunting as those realities are, the challenges facing J.T. Brackenridge are greater. Located in the poorest corner of the poorest zip code, median family income at the school is $17,000 a year. But J.T. Brack, as residents affectionately call it, enrolls students whose family income dips below $8,000 a year. As a square on the map, the school’s attendance boundary is tiny yet dense, containing three public housing projects, including Alazan-Apache Courts — one of the nation’s oldest, completed near the end of the Great Depression thanks to the parish priest’s relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Martinez knew that the traditional way of measuring student poverty — tallying the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch — was wholly inadequate when it applies to virtually every student in every one of his 90 schools.
At schools near the upper range, an annual income of $45,500 or less for a family of four, students might need extra support in learning basic math and literacy skills, for example. While at schools like J.T. Brackenridge, students need backpacks full of food to take home to their families.
“Our goal is to show our staff, this is what it means to prepare our children for the next level. How do we show parents like mine, who had a second-grade education, what is possible?” —Superintendent Pedro Martinez
To draw the fine-grained portrait he needed, Martinez culled from a different set of data, the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey, which calculates median family income by city block. Cross-referenced with individual student enrollment records, that gave him a median household income level for each school. He put the information on a map, color-coded according to the census’s four corresponding income “blocks,” with Block Four the poorest.
“These are my families that make under $20,000 a year,” Martinez explains. “They are single-parent households, they don’t own a home, and most of the parents don’t have any kind of education beyond high school. In fact, we have in some neighborhoods, a very high percentage of illiterate adults.”
Education research that isn’t based on meal-subsidy data is scarce. But a working paper released shortly after Martinez created his map confirmed his hunch that the depth and nature of poverty matters in terms of a child’s educational odds.
In July 2016, professors at Syracuse University and the University of Michigan used Michigan data to determine the number of years individual students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals. At the time of the study, these students made up half of Michigan eighth-graders.
In “The Gap Within the Gap,” Katherine Michelmore and Susan Dynarski determined that students whose family income was nearest the maximum for eligibility were most likely to be “transitorily disadvantaged” — temporarily set back by a layoff or some other factor the family could bounce back from.
Meanwhile, 14 percent had been eligible their entire time in school. “Persistently disadvantaged,” their families were unable to climb out of poverty. They were more likely to go to urban schools with high concentrations of poverty than their less-impoverished peers. As a group, the poor students studied were about two grades behind their wealthier peers, but the persistently disadvantaged children were three grades behind.
Martinez knew that at some of his schools virtually all of the students carried the trauma associated with growing up in this kind of deprivation. He would have to ask both San Antonio ISD staff and the civic and philanthropic groups eager to contribute to commit to providing the extra support necessary to address this intergenerational trauma.
Martinez carried his map around to Rotary Club breakfasts, meetings with teachers, and any other gathering where it might spark discussion. When he took it to other parts of San Antonio, he pointed out that their poverty bore little resemblance to that of his district. When he showed it within the district, he flagged the outliers.
J.T. Brackenridge was one of them, very near the bottom in terms of poverty but not academic performance. In fact, the school had a higher percentage of students scoring “advanced” on annual state reading and math assessments than the lone district school with median family income anywhere near the national average, about $54,000.
Martinez and Radle had some hypotheses about this. For starters, the close relationships in the 78207 can keep things like evictions and job losses from being as catastrophic as they might be. Though it has since experienced some turnover, the school had an unusually stable staff, Radle notes, and with periodic exceptions, the neighborhood experienced much lower crime rates than might be expected.
Usually when Martinez highlighted the surprises on his map — J.T. Brack’s scores were decent, but the district’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy was one of the best schools in the country in terms of academic achievement among low-income children — people would ask why. What went right, and could they build on it? And if kids were learning in the elementary years, how come college enrollment and graduation were still so elusive?
Conventional wisdom is that multi-generational poverty is the cause of low academic achievement. It’s undoubtedly true that decades of inequities in places like San Antonio’s urban core have created devilishly tough circumstances. But as people who also see the richness in the 78207 and similar communities, Martinez and Radle agreed that beliefs about poverty — the pobrecito problem — are also a very real barrier.
Martinez understood that to parents with little experience beyond their isolated neighborhood, the payoffs from a quality education aren’t tangible. If you don’t know anyone who has a college degree or a comfortable salary, you literally can’t envision how to get those things.
“Our goal is to show our staff, this is what it means to prepare our children for the next level,” he says. “How do we show parents like mine, who had a second-grade education, what is possible?
“I came to the conclusion very quickly that if I didn’t change that conversation that we were going to have this cloud of low expectations and it was going to continue,” Martinez adds. “Our first goal was to redefine excellence.”
Reporter’s Notebook, Animated: ‘In 20 years of failed integration efforts I’ve never seen anything like this’
Integrating by income — when 93% are in poverty
A few months after he arrived in San Antonio, Martinez approached the principal of the most academically successful school in the metro area, the International School of the Americas. Would Kathy Bieser leave her prosperous north-metro school district to design and lead a school in San Antonio ISD?
And not just any school. Martinez wanted to create a gifted and talented academy that would be open to any child in the district, regardless of test scores or zip code. The plan had multiple layers.
There’s a trove of evidence that one way to increase student achievement is to offer more challenging academic material. Requiring students to think critically about knowledge gleaned across different subject areas, the approach used in gifted and talented programs, is precisely the kind of “higher order” learning now shown to be invaluable in raising academic achievement. But when it is offered at all, it’s typically reserved for children who already are ahead. Screened infrequently, children of color are rare in gifted and talented programs.
With 93 percent of his district’s students impoverished, the only way Martinez could create socioeconomic diversity in schools was to attract families from more affluent communities. Convinced a gifted and talented program would be an immediate draw, Martinez would reserve 25 percent of seats for students from other districts.
Dissatisfied with offerings in even the most prosperous traditional districts, San Antonio families of means were decamping for private schools or for one of the nation’s most rapidly growing charter school sectors. Several of the charter networks expanding in the city, such as IDEA and KIPP, have reputations for being academically challenging.
Bieser was well positioned to set a high bar, certainly, but Martinez had another reason for tapping her. The school where Bieser was principal had been conceived of as a teacher-training lab for nearby Trinity University, whose school of education is one of the best in the nation. Hard-pressed to compete financially for teachers, Martinez needed a “grow-your-own” talent pipeline.
The newly created Advanced Learning Academy would have a partnership with the college, which would place 10 educators-in-residence and four would-be principals in the school each year. Instead of a few weeks of student teaching at the end of their educations, the teacher-in-training would spend an entire year working side-by-side with master teachers.
Because the pairs continually talk through the choices they are making in the classroom, in Bieser’s experience, residencies are beneficial not just to the student teachers, but to their veteran mentors, too.
“The magic involves being present at the very beginning of the school year almost to the very end of the school year,” she says, “seeing the flow of the year and having a classroom as well as a school that’s deeply reflective. And so not only the resident, but that master teacher, that mentor teacher are all the time kind of talking out loud about their craft.”
San Antonio ISD would pick up a large portion of the cost of training if the new teachers agreed to stay in the district for several years. Significantly, when they completed their residencies, they would take the high expectations of the gifted and talented model with them to other district schools where few believed impoverished students would benefit from academic rigor.
Advance Learning Academy had a waiting list even before the first day of school in August 2016. Encouraged, Martinez rolled out the welcome mat, offering to reopen schools mothballed because of declining enrollment for teachers and principals interested in creating new schools with dynamic models.
He had no shortage of takers. When the 2017-18 school year started, San Antonio ISD boasted a dual language program, a Montessori school, high-tech and early-college high schools, a teacher-residency school run by the Relay Graduate School of Education, and a number of specialized programs within existing schools. This year, a third dual language school came online, along with an all-boys school and a host of other new programs.
“We’re seeing again such a great response from our families. We have 10,000 applications right now for 3,000 choice seats in our district. We’ve never seen that in the history of the district,” Martinez says. “What I’m very hopeful for is that I’m seeing a community movement. I’m seeing conversations change.”
But with success came a new challenge. As applications rolled in for seats in Advanced Learning Academy’s second year, they followed a trend common throughout the country: As soon as a new school acquires a buzz on the parent grapevine, middle- and upper-class families can quickly dominate.
“We love the fact that our schools are becoming popular, but could we create our own problems?” Martinez asks. “Could we further segregate our own families just based on our success?”
Martinez needed to make sure families from Block Four, the poorest of the poor, got their share of seats in the new schools. He recruited a former teacher who was trying to create “diverse by design” schools in Dallas, Mohammed Choudhury, to start and lead an Office of Innovation.
Choudhury, whose Twitter bio lists desegregation as a job duty, immediately began creating an enrollment system that would reserve seats not just for out-of-district families and neighborhood residents, but for children from each of the income “blocks” on Martinez’s map. And he dug even deeper into the data to incorporate information about parents’ educational attainment, home ownership, single-parent status, and other factors.
Without careful controls, Choudhury says, school choice can create “islands of affluence.” So for the 2018-19 school year, one-fourth of the 3,000 open seats in the 31 choice and magnet schools were reserved for students with the highest needs.
And he and Martinez are working to locate new innovative schools in neighborhoods where geographic and economic isolation make school choice an abstraction.
Living in two worlds
One day last spring, as she was driving past J.T. Brackenridge, Radle spotted a former student of hers, Priscilla Lucio, on the way home from picking up her son, Carlos Zuniga Jr., from school.
“You don’t have, like, beans on the stove or anything like that do you?” Radle asked, making sure they had time to talk.
“No,” Lucio replied. “I did but I took them off.”
The boy, better known as C.J., had just been accepted into a new engineering program at Lanier High School, Lucio told Radle. They had gone to visit and C.J. had become captivated with the idea of working on jet engines. He’s never been on a plane, but if he had the chance, he said, he’d fly to Tokyo.
Lucio had dreamed of being a pediatrician but dropped out in 11th grade when she became pregnant with C.J. The visit to Lanier’s high-tech program changed what she wanted for her first-born.
“At first, growing up and having him, I would say, ‘Oh, I want him to join the (armed) services,’” she said. “But now, I think there’s more out there in life than just that … I would love for him to go to college.”
How would C.J. feel about leaving? How would his family? At this, the talk became more tentative. “It would be hard for my mom to let me go to college just for the fact that I’m the oldest and I’m the first one to go,” C.J. says, looking at his feet and not at his mother.
Named one of the 25 most influential Latinos in the United States by Time magazine, Lionel Sosa is a celebrated native son of the 78207. He has advised presidents and the heads of Fortune 500 companies, and yet he is intimately familiar with the shift of perspective Lucio and her children are undertaking. At 79, he has 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom live in the neighborhood.
Sosa’s own kids are from two marriages, the first to a woman who did not finish high school and the second to a college graduate he married after he made a fortune in advertising. His first four children didn’t graduate from high school. The next two graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Yale University.
“I live in these two worlds,” he says. “A world where there was no education, and life has been tough, and a world with education, that’s not quite as tough.”
Just three of the 180 members of Sosa’s own Lanier class went to college. “At the time, the courses they offered to high school students were paint and body shop, carpentry, printing, body and fender, upholstery,” he says. “They were preparing the Mexican kids to do the work that Mexican kids should do.”
San Antonio ISD offers much more now, but Lucio and C.J. have another leap to make, Sosa says. Mexican-American culture prizes family. Bringing home a paycheck, however slender, and having one’s own children is being a good son or daughter.
Sosa intervenes now when he learns a grandchild has been accepted to college but is waffling, pointing out as many times as it takes how much more college graduates can contribute and arranging to visit the campus together to help iron out things like financial aid.
Home, Radle knows after watching generations of the 78207’s young people struggle with this moment, exerts a powerful pull. Contrary to stereotypes about poverty, it’s a place where people lift one another up, sharing whatever they have and always making time to catch up. On seemingly every corner of the 78207, there’s art celebrating the neighborhood’s heritage.
And yet, as the rest of the city prospers, the West Side is backsliding. As she cruises the neighborhood, Radle can’t help but notice where homes, their foundations rotted away by rainwater, have literally fallen down.
“Just a few years ago, there were houses there that were very run down,” she says, gesturing at empty lots on a street the city started to redevelop several years ago but never finished. “But at least it was someplace for people to live.”
Fifty years ago, C.J.’s great-great grandfather was one of the founders of Inner City, the neighborhood nonprofit Radle co-directs with her husband, Rod. That work — all volunteer — has helped to keep the community’s culture vibrant, despite its hardships. But it hasn’t been enough.
Like Sosa, Radle knows how much C.J.’s family needs him to leave for at least a little while if meaningful change is to make it over the economic and social moat that encircles the neighborhood. As she watches him start to hesitate at the thought of going away to college, she jumps in, pointing out the things he could fix if he comes back to the 78207 as an engineer.
C.J. brightens. “If I had a degree, it would mean a lot to me,” he says. “I would have money and I’ll help them out to buy them a house, or buy them a car or something. I’ll try to help out and get them what they need like food, or water, or clothes. I’ll just help around with my family, my grandmother, my tia, my grandpa.”
Once C.J. has had a taste of financial security and the opportunities it can open up, Sosa is confident he will begin thinking about even larger contributions — to his family but also to the future of the 78207.
“In the Latino community, and the Hispanic community, helping family is what life is all about,” says Sosa. “It’s not about helping yourself, or doing well for yourself. It’s about the family doing well together.
“But many folks take the wrong turn in how to help their family,” he adds. “They drop out of school early, they go get a job, and then remain in a low-paying job all their lives, creating yet another generation that’s living in poverty, or close to poverty.”
No one, Sosa says — not his family and not San Antonio — can afford that.
“That’s got to change.”
Every data point a child
In 2015, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring the state Department of Education to take action when a district has one or more schools whose low test scores have placed them on the “improvement required” list for five or more consecutive years. The department must either close the schools in question, the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools, or take away power from the local school board. (Charters are considered school districts for the purposes of the law.)
Two years later, lawmakers added a third option: A district could forestall state action for two years by turning a school with five “improvement required” ratings over to an outside partner, including networks of charter schools, nonprofits, or universities.
For the first of these struggling schools, 2018 is the year the clock runs out. With six affected campuses in 2017, San Antonio ISD had more than any other district in the state save Houston, which had 10 schools on the list. When the state released the 2018 list in August, four San Antonio ISD schools had improved enough to climb off it. A fifth escaped sanctions because it is now run by a teacher-training program, and the district announced it would close the sixth school.
In January, Martinez announced plans to contract with Democracy Prep, a New York-based nonprofit charter network, to run P.F. Stewart Elementary, one of the persistently low-performing programs. The district chose the network, which also has schools in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, and New Jersey, because of its strong track record. Its first New York City program opened in 2006 and by 2009 had become the city’s highest-performing middle school.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel protested at a March board meeting where the agreement with Democracy Prep was approved. One speaker threatened “open season on board members.” Soon after, the #byepedro flyers began appearing throughout the district and the union sued.
“School superintendents and school boards are not above the law, which is designed to protect the best interests of school employees as well as students and parents,” union President Shelley Potter said in a statement. “School teachers, staff, our students’ parents, and the community were ignored in the district’s haste to turn over a neighborhood campus to a New York charter company with no ties to our community.”
Pouring kerosene on the fire, enrollment declines and past overstaffing at the district’s non-choice schools required laying off some 130 teachers and classroom aides, a process Texas law says can incorporate performance evaluations.
It’s common for teachers unions to protest district collaborations with public charter schools, especially when the partnership exempts a school from the local bargaining unit’s contract. But San Antonio ISD oversees 20 in-district charter schools, including Advanced Learning Academy — the first specialized school Martinez created — and a number of other popular new programs.
Braination, a local charter network, runs a school for the district’s most challenged special education students, and another, Texans Can Academies, a dropout recovery program. The San Antonio campus of Texans Can, which serves students who are older than their classmates or have too few credits for their age, has a dropout rate of 6 percent, compared with 39 percent among the same population at some San Antonio ISD high schools.
The difference between the new partnerships and the charters the union has not protested is a bread-and-butter distinction: The new schools employ their own teachers, while the district’s choice schools are staffed by San Antonio ISD employees, albeit on terms that differ from the rest of the district.
Democracy Prep’s contract with the district gives it room to expand if it’s successful, eventually enrolling two K-12 “continuums,” each consisting of an elementary, middle, and high school. Current Stewart Elementary staff who are not hired by Democracy Prep can choose to stay in the district and be assigned to other schools.
Whatever the trajectory of the competing pressures created by the school-closure law, the chapter threatens to engulf Martinez in a swirl of controversy that his backers fear could erode the political capital and good will that have enabled him to make so many changes in such a short time.
When Texas released its 2018 school performance data in August, Martinez got lots of good news. The percentage of San Antonio ISD students meeting or exceeding expected growth in reading and math rose to 61 percent, from 53 percent in reading and 52 percent in math the year before. The district saw academic gains across grade levels and on 73 percent of its campuses.
“Every one of those data points is a child,” Martinez says, adding that the state singled the district out as one of Texas’ fastest-improving school systems. “Those children are growing academically and their teachers’ hard work is paying off.”
Has the community had a big enough taste of success to support him, and Radle’s board, in continuing with their experiment?
“We need time to build this out,” says Martinez. “What I tell my [board] is, ‘You have to think 20 years out.’ These things have to outlast us. Will these systems become so popular people don’t look back?
“The need has been here for decades, that hasn’t changed,” he adds. “What’s different is we’re showing people what’s possible.”
The Architect — On the poor side of a deeply divided city, one ‘diverse-by-design’ prophet is weeding out school segregation, one equity audit at a time
Mohammed Choudhury grew up in Los Angeles, “a minority amongst minorities.” His parents emigrated from Bangladesh in the 1980s, a moment he sees in retrospect as an easier time for immigrants to establish themselves. His parents saved up, opened a restaurant in West Hollywood, and worked their way into the middle class.
They sent their kids to the neighborhood school, which had students from all over the world, something Choudhury loved. He knows now, as a rising star in education leadership, that it was academically lackluster. But from his parents’ perspective, the school was the gateway to the self-determination they came to the U.S. seeking.
“For my family, and on my dad’s side especially, it was a big deal for us to be educated,” he says. “It was a privilege in Bangladesh.”
Choudhury came to understand that firsthand. In fifth grade, he was taken to visit the village where his paternal grandfather built the first school in 1953. Back then, only children from wealthy families went to school. Otherwise, if you were born in a village, your future was preordained.
“When my grandfather built that school, he basically flipped that concept on its head and said, ‘We can access education here,’” says Choudhury. “I grew up under that upbringing, that it matters. And to me it was more about agency.”
Fast-forward not so many years, and Choudhury, 34, is leading a closely watched effort by the San Antonio Independent School District to open dozens of innovative new, diverse-by-design schools. Because virtually all of the district’s 50,000 students are impoverished, to create that diversity he must both attract affluent families from outside the district and ensure that children from the most isolated, destitute families within it are represented in these exciting new schools.
After decades of shrugging over the seeming impossibility of desegregation, many communities are responding to renewed interest in paying more than lip service to school integration. In this context especially, Choudhury’s work has drawn national attention.
“When I heard Mohammed was joining the team in San Antonio, I wasn’t surprised,” says Mike Magee, CEO of the nonprofit state and district superintendent network Chiefs for Change. Choudhury, he says, is “one of the leading national advocates and experts on creating diverse-by-design public schools as part of an overall equity strategy.”
Half a world away from Bangladesh, San Antonio has repeatedly been named the most economically segregated city in the United States. Its most impoverished communities are not villages, but their geographic isolation and profoundly inequitable school systems have their roots in early decisions to segregate blacks and Latinos on small, dense tracts of land.
There are 17 school districts within the city, catering to communities of differing levels of prosperity. San Antonio ISD serves the urban core made up of those red-lined neighborhoods — which means Choudhury is attempting to integrate schools where more than 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to the federal definition, and almost all are Mexican-American.
Choudhury’s work, then, is different from what most people envision when integration is talked about. Traditionally, districts that are pursuing desegregation are drawing attendance boundaries and taking other steps to get children of different races and ethnicities into common schools.
It might be on a different continent and a lifetime later, but Choudhury is fulfilling his family’s legacy in creating schools where education can serve as a means to self-determination.
“I am a proud product of an urban school district,” he says. “My family is that story of the American dream.”
‘A few winners and lots of losers’
School in California provided Choudhury with the mobility his family hoped for, but it also served him lesson after lesson in how unequally those opportunities are distributed. In high school, he was tracked — sized up and placed in a magnet school for students who were deemed college material.
“I knew there were other tracks that weren’t because I had friends that I hung out with,” Choudhury recalls. While they were taking math classes that didn’t count for anything, he was taking algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. The gap in aspirations made him uncomfortable.
One day, his high school held a career fair where he met a sociologist. “I thought it was the coolest thing that they just study problems,” he says. “You figure out what the underlying root causes were, you promoted a solution or you gave solutions, and you solved it.”
He set his sights on UCLA but didn’t get in. Determined, he bypassed the University of California schools that did admit him and enrolled in Santa Monica Community College, which had a path for feeding students to UCLA. After earning his bachelor’s degree there in English and Chicano studies, he went into the education program to train to be a classroom teacher.
Choudhury taught in several Los Angeles Unified School District schools, helping to turn around Luther Burbank Middle School, a chronically low-performing school that rose to be named a state “School to Watch.” The district’s magnet schools were terrific, but he was frustrated with the lack of opportunity outside of them. He could do more for more kids, he decided, in a position where decisions were being made.
“I said, ‘I need to get into those rooms,’” he says. “And that eventually led me to be obsessed with school design and redesign and with how enrollment works.”
WATCH — Innovation czar Mohammed Choudhury on designing schools for diversity:
In 2014, Choudhury was hired to help the Dallas Independent School District develop 35 new or rebooted schools organized around teachers’ interests. The first new schools were quickly oversubscribed, drawing some 1,600 applications for 617 seats for the 2016-17 academic year.
Inevitably, affluent families flocked to the schools. The district came under pressure to give admissions priority at one — an all-girls engineering-themed school — to children from the surrounding very wealthy neighborhood. No way, said Choudhury. That would simply re-create the segregation wrought by housing patterns.
“One of the things that we told ourselves is we’re not going to do school choice … in a way that exacerbates segregation,” he says. “We’re not going to create a system [that has] our hands and fingerprints on it that allows a few winners and lots of losers.”
Three elements for success
When the district got a new superintendent, Choudhury started looking for his next gig. He was thinking about going to work for the state of Texas or maybe returning to California when he got a call to meet San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. The south Texas district was a third the size of Dallas, and Choudhury was determined to continue implementing his integration vision.
Motivated by a desire to show teachers and families alike that San Antonio ISD could achieve academic excellence with the poorest, most challenged students, Martinez had already started a gifted and talented school to serve as an incubator of teaching talent and opened it to children of any ability. Choudhury sensed a kindred spirit.
“One of the things, if he was going to pick me, diverse by design was going to happen,” says Choudhury. “That’s non-negotiable to me. He was like, ‘Absolutely.’ He grew up in Chicago, he understands how things played out in the magnet schools.”
Martinez, in turn, was attracted to Choudhury’s insistence that school choice must be accompanied by mechanisms that ensure equitable access for all families, something he wishes had been in place during his time in Chicago.
“It gives me a lot of comfort to know there is someone watching out for that who shares my values and is so passionate,” says Martinez. “Often, when district leaders discuss choice options, there are unintended consequences for parents, and Mohammed is dedicated to understanding families’ needs.”
Martinez says his chief priority for Choudhury is the creation of systems. “The longer strategy that will take some time is taking these strategies and replicating them,” he says, explaining that Choudhury’s brand-new Office of Innovation will oversee this.
“I believe Mohammed’s leadership is already showing those changes,” Martinez says.
Three elements are indispensable in creating a system of schools that’s equitable and sustainable, in Choudhury’s view. The first is schools with attractive themes or instructional models, such as Montessori or dual language, in accessible locations. Then there’s transportation; without busing, the most desirable schools will fill up with families that can transport their own kids.
Finally, districts should create one unified enrollment system and use it to weight enrollment at each school for diversity. Families that don’t get their first choice in a computerized lottery should get help finding the next-best fit for their child, and the admissions process should include equity audits to ensure that the most isolated students are adequately represented.
He’s right, says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which in February invited leaders from 16 cities around the country to visit San Antonio and learn about Choudhury’s and Martinez’s work.
“When there is more choice in a community, there is always a risk of sorting and segregation,” she says. “Cities that I have seen that have taken enrollment challenges really seriously have done the hard work of going out and doing that kind of education.”
Addressing poverty, “block” by “block”
Installed as San Antonio ISD’s first chief innovation officer in February 2017, Choudhury picked up a project Martinez had started upon becoming superintendent in 2015. School districts and education policymakers almost always quantify poverty according to the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, the family income data point collected universally. But that statistic isn’t useful when it applies to virtually every student in the district.
For a family of four, that threshold is $45,500 in most places — nearly twice the federal poverty level and much higher than the $30,000 median income of San Antonio ISD’s families. Using much more nuanced and precise census data, Martinez had created a map listing median family income at all 90 schools in the district. Some were as low as $12,000 a year.
Choudhury mined deeper into the data, layering parents’ educational attainment, single-parent household status, homelessness, and other information into four census income “blocks.”
The gifted and talented school Martinez had launched, Advanced Learning Academy, had a waiting list even before it opened. As the superintendent intended, a fourth of the students were from outside the district. And, as is the case whenever a school acquires a buzz, applications for its second year skewed even wealthier.
Complicating things further, some of San Antonio ISD’s most popular offerings are dual language schools. Many of the city’s Latinos were forced to give up their Spanish because of past beliefs that children should assimilate. The district’s new bilingual schools are to be integrated not just by Choudhury’s socioeconomic blocks but also by home language status.
Similarly, a new Montessori program with a focus on inclusion aims to enroll pupils with disabilities, a particularly underserved population in Texas, which earlier this year was found to have improperly denied services to tens of thousands of special-needs students. In the wake of a Houston Chronicle investigation, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that state officials had imposed a cap on how many students local districts could classify as being eligible for special education.
Meanwhile, the new, high-tech CAST Tech High School enrolls fully half its students from outside the district. In its first year, CAST earned a state “distinction” designation, meaning it outperforms similar programs.
All of this means Choudhury will need not just to conduct an admissions lottery for each school where there are more applicants than seats, but to control for other student socioeconomic factors, depending on each school’s desired makeup. Like other districts with centralized admissions systems, his office uses a computer algorithm to run lotteries.
Because district “choice” schools reserve seats for different socioeconomic groups, admissions officers either run multiple lotteries until all seats are filled or, in the case of schools with waiting lists, go down them in numerical order until they find a suitable applicant. The district’s dual language schools, for example, receive more applications from English-dominant households than Spanish-speaking ones and so tend to admit most or all native Spanish speakers who apply.
To preserve the 50-50 home language balance at a dual language school, for example, San Antonio ISD leaders might bypass students atop a waiting list if they are from English-speaking families and instead admit the first student on the list from a family of native Spanish speakers.
Special attention will have to be paid to making sure that children from the poorest census blocks, Blocks 3 and 4 in Choudhury’s system, apply and get in. Poor though they are, families in Blocks 1 and 2 are more likely to have two parents with at least one stable job and to be literate, all factors that make them more likely to undertake the process of choosing a school.
The system is working at CAST Tech, where 71 percent of students from outside the district come from San Antonio ISD’s highest-income “block,” versus a fourth of students who live in the district. Half of CAST Tech’s in-district students come from the more disadvantaged and poorest families, the bottom two income blocks.
The most fragile and isolated parents are not likely to realize they have options or to have the context to analyze them without support.
“The Montessori program we have, one of the toughest battles is convincing them that it’s a school that’s not selective admissions, and their child can thrive in it,” Choudhury says. “It’s going to be a constant battle to shift that narrative.”
San Antonio ISD enrollment staff will fill out applications for families over the phone and regularly sets aside time to knock on doors in the poorest neighborhoods. For families who don’t win the lottery, district staff call to let them know about similar schools with open seats or new programs closer to home.
Finally, Choudhury’s system gives extra weight to applications from children attending Texas’s lowest-performing schools, the ones on the state’s “improvement required” list. In 2017, 19 of the district’s 90 campuses were on the list, but 35 would have qualified if new, higher state standards implemented this year had been in force. In 2018, the number of schools on the list fell to 16.
Fighting the resegregation tide
In the decades since court-ordered integration plans of the 1970s and 1980s lapsed, most communities have returned to systems of neighborhood schools, which enroll students according to segregated housing patterns.
One-third of black and Latino students go to schools that are 90 percent or more nonwhite, according to The Century Foundation. The reverse holds true for white children: More than a third attend schools that are virtually all-white.
Meanwhile, as courts have restricted schools’ ability to integrate based solely on race or ethnicity, a number of districts and charter schools have experimented with integrating according to socioeconomic status.
Until 2010, Wake County, North Carolina, had a widely lauded program of integrating schools economically by grouping relatively impoverished schools in Raleigh and more affluent schools from 11 surrounding suburbs into a single large district. The program ended in a political backlash fueled in part by transportation issues, school schedules, and funding disputes.
A similar socioeconomic integration scheme in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville, has remained in force despite assaults from state lawmakers. Some charter schools, which in most places must admit by blind lottery, recruit from diverse communities.
But those efforts have relied on the voluntary participation of wealthy suburbs adjoining impoverished cities. San Antonio ISD, by contrast, is going it alone.
“It may not be perfect out of the box,” says Lake, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “But the commitment I’ve seen from that team suggests they’ll keep refining and pushing until they get it right.”
And they will keep pushing, if Choudhury has his way, to make sure the system is successful enough that future leaders would be foolish to water it down.
“What keeps me up at night is that I will not be able to build a system that prioritizes equity that can last beyond Superintendent Martinez, myself and the current board members,” he says. “I have told my team and I continue to tell them, ‘Design as if you won’t be here one day.’ That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Expanding School Options (and Horizons) — How SAISD is partnering with top charter networks to give parents both in and beyond the 78207 new choices
Over the summer, Families Empowered, a nonprofit group that helps Texas families navigate their school choice options, revealed an eye-popping number. For the 2017-18 school year, San Antonio families submitted nearly 40,000 applications to the city’s three largest charter school networks: Great Hearts Texas, KIPP San Antonio (now KIPP Texas), and IDEA Public Schools.
Six years ago, those networks combined enrolled some 800 San Antonio students, according to Choose to Succeed, a group working to attract charter schools to the city. Today, the organization puts the number of students in schools it supports at 16,600. The goal is 60,000 by 2026.
With 1.5 million residents, San Antonio is already the seventh-largest city in the country and is estimated to grow by a million more people in the next 10 years, says Choose to Succeed CEO Christopher “Chip” Haass.
“Our goal is to increase high-performing [school] seats as fast as possible,” he says. “We wanted to make sure San Antonio was on the radar for these high-performing schools.”
Opinions about school choice notwithstanding, what these numbers add up to is a tidal wave of change aimed directly at one of the nation’s fastest-growing and yet most economically divided cities. An unconventional leader, San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez has responded by engaging his would-be competitors, creating in-district charter schools that are proving wildly popular, making sure the most impoverished kids are fairly represented in them, and asking everyone to push toward the same goal as the charter schools: making sure all students are college-bound.
A year and a half ago, Ambika Dani arrived in this volatile landscape, intent on opening a public charter school. Her plan was for Promesa Academy Charter School to serve elementary-age pupils in the city’s most impoverished zip code. Four of the nine elementary schools located in the 78207 are on the state’s failing list, and almost half of residents 25 and older did not graduate high school.
Despite the neighborhood’s need for better schools and the public demand for alternatives, the Texas Board of Education this year turned down 17 applications for new charter schools throughout the state. Dani’s was one of four approved — and the only one in San Antonio to get the green light.
When she first visited the 78207, the 28-year-old Dani says, she was shocked to see poverty that looked a lot like the countries she grew up in, Nigeria and India.
“A poverty I believed didn’t exist in the United States,” she says.
Dani’s family lived in Lagos, Nigeria, until she was 13, when they moved to Bangalore, India. She went to international schools — top-notch programs featuring International Baccalaureate classes and other high-level programming, such as the Cambridge International Examinations, that remains the same from country to country.
In Lagos, Dani was one of 20 students who came from some 15 countries. She learned to love both math and the perspective-altering experience of getting to know other cultures.
It made sense, then, that Dani became a math teacher for THINK Global School, a traveling high school that exposes students to four countries a year. She went on to teach in several U.S. cities, including New York and Pittsburgh, eventually following her medical-resident husband to San Antonio.
Dani was learning about the city’s education scene when she heard she had been selected for a Building Excellent Schools fellowship. The Boston-based program would give her intensive, year-long training to open a public charter school, which she decided should be located in the 78207.
“This is such a tight-knit community of families who want the best for their children,” she says. “What I see in a lot of the families on the West Side is what I saw in my own family.”
The community is rich with art and history. But in contrast to her global background, many of the parents and children she met had never traveled outside their neighborhood, much less to other cities.
“This zip code is their world,” she says. “I believe that if our children in this community never get to see the world outside of their community, they never get to see what it is that they can become.”
Dani says Promesa — Spanish for “promise” — is her commitment to trying to change that. To that end, when the school opens in fall 2019, it will feature global studies, among other things.
Doubling the number of students at top colleges
Dani isn’t the only San Antonio transplant who was astonished to learn about the 78207. Martinez, who arrived here from Nevada in 2015, grew up in a struggling part of Chicago’s South Side with a father who never made more than $7 an hour. Like Dani, he fell in love with the neighborhood’s vibrant culture even as he struggled to comprehend the depth of its poverty.
After taking the measure of the district’s challenges, Martinez set a two-pronged strategy into motion. Borrowing the better charter schools’ strengths, he created magnet schools and other innovative schools with attractive academic themes like Montessori and dual language programs. And he reached out to local and national charter school operators and teacher-training programs and asked them to help run some of the district’s most challenged schools.
At the same time, he launched a radical socioeconomic integration plan to end the isolation and low expectations imposed on his district’s poorest students for generations by reserving seats for them in the sought-after new schools. He identified poverty rates on every block in the district and used that information to create a system for enrolling students equitably.
The combination of strategies garnered some quick successes, drawing national attention. District leaders from around the country in February descended on San Antonio to hear from Martinez and his team and to tour their schools.
The CEO of the network of state and district superintendents Chiefs for Change, Mike Magee, says leaders and policymakers are watching intently as Martinez puts his strategy into action. Of particular interest, he says, is “Pedro’s approach to school improvement and the way he’s partnering with charter schools and charter school networks.”
Last spring, as Dani’s charter school application was in the final stages of an uncertain approval process, San Antonio ISD’s board approved Martinez’s proposal to ask Democracy Prep, a New York-based charter school network, to take over a chronically poor-performing district elementary school that was otherwise facing closure.
Seemingly overnight, the same kind of political battles that have attended the arrival of high-performing, typically non-unionized charter schools in other communities commenced — at full boil.
Like many places, San Antonio didn’t have many of the independently run public schools for years after Texas’s first charter school law was passed in 1995. Those that did open up in the early years tended to be mom-and-pop startups or programs intended for dropouts and other small groups of students. Some were good, some were not, and neighboring traditional school districts for the most part took little notice.
In 2009, a woman named Victoria Rico visited one of what were then KIPP San Antonio’s two public charter schools. A lawyer and the product of a family with a legacy in the city’s philanthropic community, Rico had been appointed to the board of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, whose sole area of giving was K-12 education.
Like many schools affiliated with other charter management organizations — nonprofit networks with three or more schools — KIPP schools frequently outperform their traditional district counterparts. Last year, Stanford University’s CREDO researchers found that networks like KIPP do particularly well with black and Latino students living in poverty.
Rico was blown away by what she saw at the school and began visiting other charter schools that were successfully replicating — opening new campuses where students were enjoying high academic growth.
In December 2011, Rico invited leaders of the charitable network Philanthropy Roundtable and several high-performing charter school networks to two meetings in San Antonio. The city’s private and family foundations could make a greater collective impact if they joined forces to help underwrite new charter schools, she told them. Meanwhile, the school networks could collaborate to achieve economies of scale.
The outgrowth of those meetings, Choose to Succeed, courted not just charter networks that served impoverished students but also groups that appealed to middle-class families. Bare-bones state funding for all schools, including many in wealthy communities, had sparked dissatisfaction among affluent parents, which translated to demand for schools affiliated with Arizona’s BASIS Schools, regularly named among the best high schools in America, and Great Hearts Academies.
“As much as we want to serve students who have been underserved by [traditional districts], we want to make sure that middle-class families have options,” says Haass. “It’s got to be an ecosystem of different choices.”
In his 2016 book The Founders, which was published by The 74, Richard Whitmire wrote about Rico’s plan, observing that as of 2015, the new schools had attracted a remarkably socioeconomically diverse array of families. A third of families at the first two BASIS schools were white, he reported, and another third Latino. Half of students at Great Hearts’ downtown Monte Vista campus are Latino, and a fourth are low-income.
“It was clear the one action that could truly shut down the charter expansion — creating successful traditional schools for low-income Latinos at scale — was not in the offing anytime soon,” Whitmire wrote, while taking note of an incipient “attitude reversal” at San Antonio ISD, which had a new superintendent.
Under state law, the district had long had the ability to create or oversee charter schools, something it had done numerous times. Opened in 2008, for example, Young Women’s Leadership Academy, an all-girls high school with an admissions test, repeatedly has been cited for high student achievement by both the state Department of Education and U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools rankings.
The new superintendent, Martinez, began asking teachers if they wanted to open more in-district charter schools where a certain number of seats would be open to the same affluent families living outside San Antonio ISD who were flocking to charters. The rest of the student body would come from in-district students living in different levels of poverty, to make sure that San Antonio ISD’s poorest families had the same access as those who were on the threshold of the middle class.
“When we first started looking at our new models, our first goal was to redefine excellence,” Martinez says. “We created new [school] models and had a clear focus on excellence. I went and found the best principals I could find, the best teachers.”
The first, a gifted and talented school that didn’t screen kids academically and was open to anyone, acquired a buzz on the parent grapevine overnight. Advanced Learning Academy was followed quickly by a Montessori school, dual-language immersion schools, two schools managed by the Relay Graduate School of Education — a teacher-training program founded by veterans of the high-performing Uncommon Schools and KIPP charter school networks — and numerous other magnet programs and in-district charter schools.
Suddenly, several San Antonio ISD schools had as many applications as the most popular charter schools. The influx of students from neighboring districts began to counter the loss of families enrolling their children in schools outside the district.
“We now have waiting lists,” says Martinez. “This is the first time our district in San Antonio is considered a [district] that has great choices for families.”
Martinez also approached a small San Antonio charter network that operates schools for youth in residential settings, including treatment and detention centers. He asked the John H. Wood Charter Schools to take over the district’s moribund facility for its high school students with the most challenging disabilities and behavior issues, and invited the Dallas-based Texans Can Academies to open a program inside a high school for students who have dropped out or are far behind on graduation requirements.
Local philanthropy took notice, particularly of Martinez’s plan to hire college counselors and ask leaders of the lauded KIPP Through College program to train them to use the charter school network’s strategies, which have dramatically increased the number of KIPP graduates enrolling in and graduating from four-year colleges.
“We want to be the district that graduates children from college, not just to get them into college,” he says. “So our goal is to show our staff, this is what it means to prepare our children for the next level. It creates a great conversation about expectations.”
A KIPP counselor spent the 2016-17 school year working in a district high school. Thanks to the experiment, the number of graduates from Jefferson High School accepted into four-year universities doubled, from 26 percent to 53 percent.
In late 2017, Valero Energy, an oil refinery giant that is headquartered in San Antonio, gave the district $8.4 million over five years to hire two college advisers for each high school and one for each of the smaller schools. The staff supplement school counselors, helping to match students — virtually all of them the first in their families to go past high school — with colleges and universities that will support them academically and financially.
The class of 2017 had the district’s highest graduation rate ever, 85 percent. More than 55 percent of those graduates are attending college this year, and the number attending Tier 1 universities doubled to 7 percent. Students are attending Middlebury College in Vermont, Boston College, the University of Michigan, and other highly competitive schools.
“It’s just the beginning of the work,” says Martinez. “But when we’ve already doubled the number of students attending these types of universities and we could be on track to increase that even more this year, with more of them being college-ready, again it just gives me hope and it makes me feel that we’re on the right track.”
Dueling Pedro hashtags
The Texas supermarket chain HEB, whose family owners are deeply involved in K-12 education in the state, meanwhile, played a major role in creating CAST Tech, a high-tech high school located in San Antonio ISD that is open to students throughout Bexar County. At the end of its first year, CAST earned a 2017-18 “distinction” rating from the state based on its superior student performance in relation to similar schools.
Martinez’s decision to invite Relay to run schools — and train new district teachers — is something other districts are watching, says Magee. “The partnership with Relay is groundbreaking for a variety of reasons,” he says. “One is that Pedro told Relay, ‘You are going to be training teachers for our system, and we want to embed your training in our district.’”
The other thing he says education policymakers have noted: Martinez’s willingness to work with the state. To fulfill its requirements under 2015’s federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the state boosted its support for in-district charter schools, which has meant extra funding for San Antonio ISD schools. The district will get extra support, for example, to help the New York-based Democracy Prep turn around a school that had been on the state’s list of the lowest-performing programs, Stewart Elementary.
Buzz and stronger academic outcomes notwithstanding, district enrollment continues to fall. The 2017-18 school year opened with 1,800 fewer students than the year before. And the 2018-19 school year is expected to see enrollment drop by another 800 students, from 50,695 to 49,895.
Martinez attributed the departures to the presence of charter schools within greater San Antonio. But co-opting them, he believes, will better serve students than digging in and trying to vanquish them.
The 2017-18 enrollment losses were a major factor behind a $31 million budget deficit forecast for the current year. When the administration started looking at spending, Martinez said, analysts concluded the district had 255 more teachers than were needed in its 90 schools.
In May, the school board agreed to lay off 31 administrators and 132 teachers. Sixty-nine were probationary teachers who had one-year contracts. The others were laid off on the basis of performance evaluations, sparking protests and angry calls for the board to fire Martinez.
Flyers with the superintendent’s picture and slogans such as #byepedro already had appeared throughout the city, sparked by the board’s decision in March to sign a contract with Democracy Prep to take over Stewart Elementary.
“Public schools in the United States are under attack, and charter schools are merely the latest attempt by private corporations to rebrand the school reform movement and exploit public funding for profit,” Luke Amphlett, a teacher at San Antonio ISD’s Luther Burbank High School and a union activist, wrote in a commentary for the Rivard Report news site. “The idea that we should be working with them is absurd: their goals — and the goals of their advocates — could not be further from our own.”
Under the terms of a relatively new law, Stewart was projected to become one of the first San Antonio ISD schools to trip a requirement that the state either close a school that remained on its lowest-performing “improvement required” list for five consecutive years or take over its district’s board. Districts can forestall those actions for two years by turning over the school in question to a charter network, nonprofit agency, or university to run.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel sued the district, seeking to block the Democracy Prep partnership, demanded an investigation into complaints that the layoffs were based on manipulated evaluations, and warned board members that there would be staunch opposition to re-election bids. (None of the board’s seven members is up for election this year. A court denied the alliance’s request to block Democracy Prep’s arrival but allowed the underlying lawsuit to proceed.)
But here, too, something largely unprecedented happened. Families — including some affluent parents who just a couple of years ago were reluctant to enroll their children in San Antonio ISD schools — showed up to support the superintendent and board members.
They had hashtags of their own: #parentsforpedro and #padresforpedro.
“Now is the time for parents to speak up and let Martinez and the board know that we appreciate the changes that the district has made already,” San Antonio Charter Moms blogger Inga Cotton wrote. “We want the improvements to continue under Martinez’s leadership.”
My life’s dream
It might surprise most people to learn that, reputation as a free-market frontier notwithstanding, Texas is an incredibly hard place to open a charter school. The politics are cutthroat, funding laughable, and scrutiny so intense that applications routinely top 100 pages.
In December 2017, 21 prospective new schools applied for permission to open. In June, after a six-month vetting process that the state’s education commissioner termed “a thrasher,” Dani’s Promesa Academy squeezed through the tiny end of the approval funnel.
“I’ve always believed that to break out of poverty, you need an excellent education,” she says. “For me, to be able to come to a community like this where children and families haven’t had access to education and are struggling to break out of that cycle, and to bring them hope in a new school, that’s my life’s dream.”
Debate was intense right down to the wire. One state Board of Education member, an administrator at a San Antonio-area district adjacent to the 78207, opined that the area was “oversaturated with charter schools.” Another opposed Promesa because Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit where Dani was a fellow, receives money from the Walton Family Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropic funder of charter schools.
Because San Antonio ISD will authorize Democracy Prep, Stewart Elementary’s new leaders will not have to navigate the same procedural gantlet. But it’s anyone’s guess whether Martinez’s desire to partner with would-be competitors will provoke enough opposition to spell the end of his much-watched tenure.
Martinez began his career in education in Chicago Public Schools, arguably the epicenter of pushback against school choice. His experience there, he says, suggests that the success of the in-district charter schools opened on his watch — and their long and diverse waiting lists — may help mitigate people’s discomfort with change.
“There is sometimes a little bit of controversy because unlike my colleagues, I’ve been very open to partnering with … universities or charter operators,” he says. “And charter operators sometimes can be very polarizing. Something that I’ve decided is that we’re going to look at whatever works for these children.”
How San Antonio is designing integration efforts to tap into bilingual roots, and empowering families once forced to give up Spanish
The moment a person begins to dream in a second language is often heralded as the moment he or she becomes fluent, when the brain stops translating a thought into a new idiom and instead pulls up a concept and expresses it in either tongue.
Because language and dreams both connect the dreamer to culture, research suggests it’s also the point at which a person becomes comfortable straddling two worlds.
When Cristina Noriega opens her front door, her feet are bare and her faded overalls partially cover a T-shirt in a brighter blue bearing the motto for her daughters’ school: “I Dream in Dos Idiomas” — “I Dream in Two Languages.”
Splashed across a pastel image of a globe, the words mean a number of deeply personal things to Noriega, whose daughters attend Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, where students are taught in a fully bilingual atmosphere.
“I thought, what a gift for my kids just from the beginning, to not only be proud of their culture, proud of their story, be able to talk about it, but also be able to speak Spanish from an early age,” she says. “For me, it’s a very personal thing, because it’s like, I didn’t want to lose that. I didn’t want them to lose it.”
Noriega grew up in San Antonio in a sprawling Mexican-American family. She’s an artist whose work often melds current-day images with indigenous and Mexican-American iconography. Noriega has painted murals throughout the city that reach back to a time before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and depict the Latino customs of her own childhood.
Two-thirds of San Antonio residents are Latino, but until recently, schools didn’t recognize bilingualism as a strength. Students were pushed to learn English as quickly as possible and speak it exclusively. Noriega’s father, Lionel Sosa, is now a nationally known marketing expert and political strategist. As a schoolboy in the city’s poorest neighborhood, he was punished — hit on the knuckles with a ruler — for speaking Spanish in school.
Three years ago, when the new superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, Pedro Martinez, decided to revitalize the struggling system by creating a portfolio of innovative schools and integrating them by family income, he knew that given the history of the city’s Latino residents, dual language schools would prove popular. And he knew bilingual education offers significant advantages in terms of both academics and career options for graduates.
Cristina Noriega’s history with regard to language is a common one. Sosa wanted his children to be bilingual, and the oldest ones are. But by the time she was growing up, English was well established as the family’s common tongue. When Noriega got to college — she graduated from Yale University — she was astonished to meet students who could shift effortlessly from one language to another.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m a fake Latino,’” she says. “Because you know, I could understand, but it’s like, if they hear me speak, they’re going to be like, ‘Hmm, that’s different.’”
When Noriega had her own kids, she was determined things would be different. She wants Luz, 8, and Paloma, 5, to grow up bilingual and bicultural. The girls, whose names mean “light” and “dove,” respectively, spend their school days learning in two languages. From the storybooks they bring home to conversations with grandparents, the Sosa-Noriega clan is speaking more Spanish now.
A drive toward integration
As part of a larger effort to boost student achievement and spur integration in a district composed almost entirely of impoverished Latino students, San Antonio ISD last year rebooted a flagging middle school in a historic neighborhood as a dual language program. Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, the Noriegas’ school, now enrolls equal numbers of students from Spanish- and English-speaking households, also balanced by socioeconomic status.
The seventh-largest metro area in the country, San Antonio leads the nation in economic segregation. The school’s creation is part of an ambitious plan by education leaders to confront a concentration of extreme poverty in the district, one of 17 within the city’s limits. By creating attractive schools like Mark Twain, the district is drawing in wealthy families from the city’s other school districts. At the same time, Martinez and his team have used detailed census data to identify children from the district’s poorest and most isolated neighborhoods and create a groundbreaking enrollment system that ensures they have equal access to the sought-after new programs.
In addition to Twain, the district has succeeded in attracting students to diverse-by-design schools that feature Montessori, high-tech, and gifted and talented models, among others. Coupled with an ambitious plan to make sure each school enrolls a socioeconomic cross-section of the city, the effort has drawn national attention.
“Across our network, which serves 7 million kids, everyone wants to know more about San Antonio,” says Mike Magee, CEO of the nonprofit district and state superintendent network Chiefs for Change. “The early returns are extremely promising.”
At the end of its first year, Twain earned a state “distinction” designation for outpacing similar schools in terms of student academic growth and the rate at which socioeconomic achievement gaps were closing.
The popularity of dual language schools has exploded nationwide, but the programs are particularly desired in cities near the U.S.-Mexico border, like San Antonio. Here, bilingualism is important culturally but is also a linchpin of the local economy. Demand for new dual language schools far outpaces the supply of qualified bilingual teachers.
Twain opened in August 2017 with 175 students. When San Antonio ISD’s school choice window opened less than four months later, there were 700 applications for 192 seats. (Like other new schools, Twain will add grades as its inaugural class of pupils advances. Eventually, it will serve 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers through eighth grade.)
Video Profile: Inside Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, Where Students’ Heritage Is Celebrated and Everyone Is Encouraged to Learn Spanish
At the start of the 2018-19 school year in August, the district reopened perennially struggling Washington Irving Middle School as a dual language school starting with pre-K to second grade. In addition to the fully bilingual schools, the district offers 43 dual language programs within English-dominant schools.
Also the product of a household that gradually lost its Spanish, Twain principal David Garcia is a persuasive spokesman for the “cognitive magic” of dual language schooling. A growing body of research suggests he’s right.
Big benefits in being bilingual
Common wisdom has long held that teaching children in two languages would impede their academic progress. The goal has been to expose students who speak a non-English language at home — almost one-fourth of U.S. students — to as much English as possible.
But increasingly, it’s clear that learning in more than one language at a very young age builds a better brain — one that’s more flexible and has more neurological connections. Research also reveals bilingualism improves the brain’s executive function, the system that governs the ability to focus, hold information in mind, and solve problems.
One study found that regardless of race, ethnicity, and home language, by middle school — and sometimes sooner — North Carolina dual language students were often at least one grade level ahead of students of the same demographic in monolingual classes. The benefits are thought to be lifelong; some researchers believe bilingualism may forestall dementia.
By contrast, a child whose home language is not English faces significant challenges learning to read in an English-immersion environment, Garcia notes. Not least of these is the likelihood that the words a student is being asked to decode lack cultural relevance.
“Their reading comprehension starts to decline because they don’t have enough of either language to hook concepts to,” he says. “As they get older, language drops away because it’s not valued.”
In a dual language environment, Garcia continues, all children see their language and culture validated. And because students are acquiring language from one another, both English- and Spanish-dominant children bring assets to school.
“We never translate; we let the kids do it,” he says, offering an example from Paloma Noriega’s class. “In kindergarten last week, they were talking about the concept of adding and subtracting. A boy gave an answer and the teacher said, ‘Bueno, ahora como se dice en espanol?’” – “Good, now how do you say that in Spanish?”
Twain students spend more time learning in Spanish in the early grades, in part because it’s a much easier language to learn to read.
“Spanish is transparent,” says Garcia. “The way it looks is how it sounds. You can break that code much faster in Spanish.”
Once someone has learned to read in one language, the skills don’t need to be taught again. As students’ comprehension and reading fluency amp up, more English-language materials are added until the kids make the shift to biliteracy.
“Second grade is the magic year,” he says. “It just happens.”
In many communities, dual language programs have fallen victim to their own popularity. Once a district has sold white families on the benefits of multilingualism, affluent parents, if allowed, pack schools and waiting lists. When a school becomes a “one-way” dual language program, meaning most or all of the students come from households that speak only one of the languages used at school, much of the benefit is lost. Conor Williams, a New America fellow and 74 contributor, has written extensively about the strategy.
“This is straightforward enough,” he writes in a recent Atlantic article. “If the only native Spanish (or Mandarin, or French, or Arabic) speaker in a multilingual classroom is the teacher, it makes it much harder for students to avoid relying on English.”
Named superintendent three years ago, Pedro Martinez moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 5. “At that time, there were no dual-language programs in Chicago,” he says. “Sadly, for decades, the majority of our Latino community was not encouraged to speak Spanish and take pride in their culture.”
He knew from personal experience that waiting until a native Spanish-speaking student becomes fluent in English to begin teaching reading and math can create a gap in mastery that too often widens as a child ages.
“In San Antonio, we see an amazing opportunity to help our families not only see the value of a second language, but also in taking pride in one’s culture and identity,” he says.
Innovation and opportunity
Martinez used census data, rarely mined by school systems, to create a literal map of poverty levels throughout his new 50,000-student district. It revealed that poverty at some schools was much more profound — and thus more intractable — than at others.
He hired a young hotshot to be the district’s first innovations chief. Mohammed Choudhury quickly implemented a novel system for filling the district’s attractive new schools with a mix of students. Like the district’s other “choice” schools, Twain is open to students who live anywhere in the city of San Antonio and the larger Bexar County, with seats reserved for local students from impoverished households.
But San Antonio goes further, setting aside seats for families from four different income ranges within the traditional and simpler gauge of poverty: whether a household’s children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, a category into which virtually every San Antonio ISD student falls. In addition, at Twain, half of students must come from Spanish-dominant homes.
Adjoining San Antonio’s most popular cultural attractions, the neighborhood where Twain is located is graced by impeccably restored historic homes. Built in 1923, the bright and airy school building fits right in. Even with multiple applications for each opening, at the end of the last school year there were still some unfilled seats for Spanish speakers.
Which raises an interesting question about San Antonio ISD’s experiment: Will the affluent families the district is counting on to break up its concentration of poverty flock to Irving, the dual language school that just opened? A reboot of a school threatened with closure for being on the state’s “improvement required” list for too many years, Irving is located in the poorest zip code in metro San Antonio.
Median family income in the 78207 is less than $25,000 a year. In several neighborhoods within the zip code, it’s half as much, and in one, only $8,000 a year. Sosa, Cristina Noriega’s now-successful dad, himself grew up in the 78207 at a time when the local high school was focused on preparing students for “jobs for Mexicans,” he says.
With two applications for every seat, Irving did have a waiting list before it even opened. It didn’t draw as many middle-class families as Twain, but Choudhury, whose office oversees enrollment, did not expect it to.
“In terms of my dual language schools, the thing that’s most important to me is the model itself” and its cognitive benefits, he says. “We’re opening dual language schools to do right by our bilingual families and also create well-rounded citizens.”
Like a growing number of districts, to make sure its schools are equitably enrolled, San Antonio ISD uses a single application process to match families with schools. When a parent doesn’t win the lottery at a first-choice school, this gives Choudhury’s office a chance to present other options.
“Have you thought about this?” he says staff may ask. “Or, ‘Did you know that the school that you’re zoned to actually has this program?’” Sometimes the parent signs up for a tour.
The schools are opening at an auspicious moment, with San Antonio’s tricentennial directing attention to the succession of ethnicities that were drawn first to its spring-fed rivers and, centuries later, to its vibrant arts scene and cultural institutions.
The five Spanish missions that date to the early 1700s and make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Noriega was one of four artists commissioned to paint murals alongside a greenway near one of the colonial sites. Each mural depicts native plants and animals and represents a season.
Noriega lobbied to paint the winter panel, on which mountain lions prowl across a blue backdrop. She was drawn to the season because she wanted to capture another image, pecans, which grow in abundance here and which during the cold months sustained the indigenous people the Spaniards came to conquer.
Despite the succession of bloody conflicts that followed, and the profound economic inequities that have persisted, San Antonio residents are proud of their multicultural roots.
Noriega’s grandmother was a pecan sheller in the 1920s, a time when San Antonio provided half the nation’s supply. In 1938, 12,000 Latinas walked off their shelling jobs to protest unhealthy working conditions and injustices, including the illegal deportation of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. As a girl, Noriega collected the nuts with her grandmother and heard about the opportunities the family’s circumstances denied her father.
Not long ago, Sosa visited Twain and talked to students about his upbringing and how he had been shamed for his language in school. “I did not know how to ask to use the bathroom in English,” Noriega says he told the kids. “I kept asking in Spanish. My teacher ignored me. I couldn’t hold it and I wet my pants …”
Sosa would go on to write the seminal book on marketing to Latinos in the United States and to advise multinational corporations and presidential candidates. But no amount of wealth and fame erased the childhood stings, says Noriega.
“You can just see him get so proud when he sees his grandkids reading in Spanish and talking,” she continues. “It’s valued now.”
Noriega learned Spanish as an adult, but she never crossed the threshold where her dreams move from one language to another. Her dreams for her children and her community are nevertheless fluently bicultural.
“San Antonio is a special place because we have such a rich, vibrant history and culture,” she says. “We have so much art and beauty. We’re a welcoming city of opportunity.”
It’s time to open those opportunities to all children, she says. “You can go and get the best education and look at the impact you have here in San Antonio.”
The Crown Jewel — A public Montessori program, designed for diversity and inclusion
Before hers became a household name, Maria Montessori spent 26 years defying her father and male teachers to graduate from the University of Rome’s medical school. It was 1896, and Italian society was not anxious to reward women like her, so after some controversy, Montessori was assigned to run what had been the city’s asylum for “deficient and insane” children.
After she dismissed staff who were contemptuous of their charges, most of whom today would be diagnosed with autism or a cognitive disability, Montessori was left without enough adults to run the residential facility, so she set about teaching the children, first to care for one another and later to read and write at levels no one imagined possible.
Almost 120 years later, in a remarkably orderly classroom at Steele Montessori Academy in San Antonio’s Highland Park neighborhood, Laura Christenberry watches quietly as children from age 3 to kindergarten carry out activities unchanged since their creation by Maria Montessori. Several of the students have disabilities and receive special education services, but it’s impossible to tell which ones.
Never mind that many of the kids are preschoolers; the words on the walls are big ones, like “exquisite” and “symmetry.” Some students pour water from one child-size vessel to another neatly and precisely, re-shelving the materials where they found them. One uses small rods threaded with beads to build a number line of tens and ones that stretches well into the hundreds.
Steele is one of the crown jewels in the San Antonio Independent School District’s portfolio of new schools, but it’s Christenberry’s brainchild. The graduate of a novel principal-grooming partnership between nearby Trinity University and San Antonio ISD, she was dotting the i’s on her plan for a new school just as the district announced it wanted to open a Montessori program.
“We wanted to give the Montessori education to students who don’t normally get it,” says Christenberry.
The city’s first public Montessori
Incredibly popular because of their child-centered philosophy, Montessori schools require specially trained teachers, which makes them rare in traditional districts. There are six other Montessori schools in San Antonio, but all are private and located in more affluent parts of the city.
Christenberry’s voice is hushed as she points out the framed family photos resting on shelves around the room. “We want students to feel this is their second home,” she says. “We want them to feel safe and loved.”
The district, which encompasses the urban core of what is by most accounts the most economically segregated city in the country, is in the midst of an effort to confront its families’ profound and pervasive poverty and to raise student expectations and outcomes with an unprecedented school integration plan.
Almost all 50,000 San Antonio ISD students are Latinos who qualify for subsidized meals, the traditional measurement by which school systems define poverty. That’s not a useful piece of data when poverty is so widespread, so district leaders have taken the novel step of using much more detailed census information on household incomes to distinguish the different levels of student poverty. They then created an enrollment system that balances those demographics in a way that ensures that the poorest families, those struggling with hunger and homelessness, have the same access as those tiptoeing up to the threshold of the middle class. A percentage of seats at all of the district’s most popular “choice” schools — new, innovative programs designed to attract well-off families — are reserved for children from San Antonio ISD’s four different income “blocks,” with Block 1 being the most stable and Block 4 being the most disadvantaged.
When Superintendent Pedro Martinez approached Christenberry about her school proposal, she told him she had one non-negotiable requirement: Because of her rock-solid faith in Montessori’s ability to help children develop certain skills, Christenberry wanted the school to serve a larger-than-usual share of students with disabilities. And she wanted that philosophy of inclusion — of making the program what participants needed, and not vice versa — to extend to all aspects of the school.
In turn, Christenberry endorsed Martinez’s “50-50” plan, in which half the students would come from affluent families — some from outside the district — and the other half from San Antonio ISD families representing the lower-income blocks. But she was determined to keep the middle-class families from dominating the PTA and other parent communities, something that frequently happens when a school enrolls students from different socioeconomic levels.
With a focus on orderly classrooms and the use of “manipulatives,” small items for children to handle that stimulate the development of the brain’s executive function, Montessori can improve young children’s ability to concentrate, persist, and regulate their behavior.
“When you think of Montessori, you think of families of means,” says Martinez. “It’s not a coincidence that so many of our Montessoris are private. It’s elitism.”
Martinez wanted to drive home the point that given proven opportunities, all children could excel. “I wanted to change the conversation for San Antonio,” he says, “and frankly, with a much bigger intention in mind.”
At 4, Santiago Rijos Roadman is one of Steele’s youngest students. He and his parents walk to school every morning from a Craftsman bungalow a few blocks away. Parents Lexa Rijos and Jamie Roadman help, but Santiago mostly gets himself dressed and ready.
“For the most part, we’re just following the lead of the Montessori style of teaching,” Roadman explains. “They encourage them to be adventurous, inquisitive, and anything that they can do on their own to do it on their own.”
Rijos is a nurse practitioner and Roadman makes and restores stringed instruments in a studio behind the house, which they bought 16 years ago not anticipating having kids. After Santiago was born, it started to matter that schools in the neighborhood — funky and working-class — weren’t very good.
They were agonizing over whether to move to a neighborhood they couldn’t afford in a more desirable district or try to find the funds for private school tuition when Rijos noticed a post on the district’s Facebook page.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder where this school is going to be?’” she recalls, laughing at the fact that she typed the address into Google maps before realizing Steele, which will eventually teach kids from age 3 to sixth grade, would be just down the street. “We just got lucky.”
Designing diverse classrooms
In Steele’s case, its 172 seats are filled using several lotteries. The first admits students from the surrounding zip code, then the district, and finally the county. As with its other new “choice” schools — which include dual language academies, a gifted and talented school that does not screen for admission, and schools with technology focuses — the district audits the results to make sure San Antonio ISD families of all socioeconomic backgrounds are represented.
For the 2018-19 school year, Steele had eight applications for every open seat. Attracting affluent applicants was the easy part. Making sure the district’s lowest-income families saw the school as a viable option was harder, says Mohammed Choudhury, San Antonio ISD’s chief innovation officer and the designer of the enrollment system.
Decades of complicated admissions requirements have conditioned impoverished families to believe their children won’t do well in magnet schools and other specialized programs, he says.
“The Montessori program that we have, one of my toughest battles is convincing them that it’s a school that’s not selective-admissions, and their child can thrive in it,” says Choudhury. “I’m proud to say we’ve got a great, healthy pool this year, but it’s going to be a constant battle to shift that narrative.”
To Rijos and Rodman, luck at first meant a school with a model that appealed to them with preschool seats that extended down to 3-year-olds. When Santiago enrolled, however, it was the emphasis on inclusion that enthralled them.
“There are children that have developmental delays and there are children that are intellectually advanced,” says Rijo. “I work in a hospital. I see everything. I see people that didn’t go to high school. I see people that have several doctorates. And I can tell you that yes, intellect is important, but how you treat human beings to me is much more important.”
In Texas, where Steele is located, the landscape for children with disabilities is particularly fraught. In the wake of a damning investigation by the Houston Chronicle, earlier this year the U.S. Department of Education censured the state for improperly imposing a cap on the number of students that schools could identify as needing special education services.
Nationally, about 13 percent of students require Individualized Education Programs, known as IEPs, or 504 plans, federally mandated documents spelling out how their needs will be met in school. But for more than 12 years, Texas districts were told by state overseers to keep the number of students served to 8.5 percent or fewer or face sanctions.
As a result, tens of thousands of Texas families who may have been improperly denied special ed services left traditional districts for charter schools or for private schools of wildly varying quality. The state is now negotiating fixes with schools and federal regulators.
Ten percent of Steele students received special ed services in the 2017-18 school year. Using a co-teaching model, educators with special ed licenses work alongside teachers who have Montessori credentials or are acquiring them.
As in many San Antonio ISD schools with curricular themes, Steele’s teachers are retraining together so the entire faculty can implement the school’s model in the same way. Because in this case the model is Montessori, the skills that teachers — regardless of their initial training — are learning are beneficial both to general education and special education students.
There is no Montessori teacher-training program in San Antonio, so the district has brought in experts to work with Steele’s staff. The intensive coaching is intended to benefit both teachers who struggle and master teachers.
“To me, it is a different level of capacity-building,” says Martinez. “It’s us building expertise.”
Students prepare snacks, wash dishes, and carry out other tasks that develop life skills — usually taught to kids with the biggest challenges in segregated settings. And Montessori’s frequent belief that cursive should be the first type of handwriting taught is particularly helpful for students with dyslexia, says Christenberry.
Children with dyslexia have trouble associating sounds and letter combinations. Because cursive requires hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills and forces different parts of the brain to work together, students learn to decode words more easily.
During the school’s first year, Steele’s classrooms, which include students as young as 3, had a teacher and an aide for every 18 students because the school was not enrolled to capacity for its inaugural year. The student-teacher ratio — a hot-button issue in many districts — will go up going forward because Montessori typically has higher ratios than other classrooms.
“Kids can function on their own,” says Christenberry. “The more, the better, because they are helping each other. It’s an ecosystem.”
VIDEO TOUR — Inside Steele Montessori Academy, San Antonio’s Public Program Designed for Inclusion, Integration, and to Serve Special Education Students
If schools that embrace students with disabilities are uncommon, schools that insist on inclusive practices are even more so. Santiago doesn’t require special education services, but his family quickly came to love the community-building effects of inclusion.
Rijos and Roadman are regular fixtures at Christenberry’s First Thursdays, monthly evening sessions in which kids enjoy activities while their parents learn about Montessori and its applications at home. They also look forward to First Fridays, when there are often schoolwide social activities, like pumpkin painting for Halloween or a Dr. Seuss birthday celebration.
Mindful that events are easier for some families to get to than others, Christenberry has tried whenever she can to make it possible for everyone in the school community to know about them and participate — albeit in a modified fashion.
“We want to make sure special ed parents are included, and their voices are equal,” Christenberry says.
She schedules as few family-oriented events during the day as possible, so parents who cannot get away from work are not excluded. Because most people have smartphones, the school uses an app to stay in touch and posts many events on Facebook Live. Grandparents, cousins, and friends are encouraged to participate, a huge gesture toward tight-knit Latino communities where extended family is vital.
“Everyone is included in learning and being part of the community, which is what’s very important to me,” says Rijos. “I believe that in order for us to have a successful child, he needs to be kind, he needs to be respectful, and he needs to appreciate that everyone is just as important as he is.”
A Texas First — Inside the San Antonio district-charter special education partnership built around personalized learning
Every school system has students whose disabilities, mental health needs, or behavioral issues are intense or unique enough that they need to attend school in a segregated facility. Often, this is to ensure the student’s safety — and sometimes to safeguard others.
In the worst settings, it can be a one-way trip for a disruptive student the system has given up on, who will mark time in a prison-like setting until dropping out. But sometimes, it’s a transformative juncture, where a student is exposed to adults who’ve been there and doesn’t have to put on a “normal” face in a regular classroom.
Educators don’t talk a lot about these schools, out of concern for student privacy, and also out of a sense that swaths of the public will see the herculean lift often required to meet these children’s needs as throwing good tax dollars after bad.
When Superintendent Pedro Martinez arrived at the San Antonio Independent School District three years ago, he was struck by how little support was available to the 50,000-student district’s small and fluctuating population of kids with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.
“When I started as superintendent, the program we had was one that I had the most concerns about,” says Martinez. “These were some of our most fragile kids.”
Treatment options for young people were so scarce that Bexar County, which is home to San Antonio ISD and the 16 other school districts within the city limits, had a 12-year waiting list for services, special education staff told him. Absent those, reality was that San Antonio ISD’s schools were frequently the only place where these students got help.
What the city did have was a 20-year-old nonprofit that operates charter schools in residential facilities, including juvenile detention centers, facilities for teens in foster care, and treatment programs, as well as a private school in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center for mothers and children seeking asylum.
The organization, Braination, also runs a school on the city’s far northwest side that could not appear, at least at first, more different from its residential schools. An architectural gem where students can study subjects of their own choosing in a giant treehouse, Anne Frank Inspire Academy uses an online platform developed for community colleges in Norway. Its curricular model, called guided inquiry, is copied from the vaunted International School of Brussels. Like most public charter schools, it admits students by lottery.
As Martinez and his team strategized how to improve student outcomes for as many students as possible on an ambitious timeline, they took advantage of untapped expertise both among the district’s staff, some of whom were invited to open innovative new schools, and within outside organizations. The Relay Graduate School of Education, for instance, was asked to convert two low-performing schools to teacher-training labs and then to run them.
Opened in 2014, Anne Frank Inspire was the kind of exciting and innovative school San Antonio ISD was struggling to compete with for students. Yet its parent organization, Braination, also had the specialized expertise to support students many traditional districts write off. Some of its success is attributable to the nonprofit’s willingness to encourage synergy between its residential schools and Anne Frank Inspire’s cutting-edge campuses.
Martinez heard about Braination shortly after his 2015 arrival and reached out to see whether the organization would consider partnering to run one of his schools. San Antonio ISD would provide the building, transportation, food, and oversight mandated by special education laws. Braination, the nonprofit with the network of specialized charter schools, would supply teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors — and expertise.
In August 2017, the district’s Brewer Academy opened its doors to middle and high school students with mental health struggles and serious behavioral challenges. District leaders say state officials told them the arrangement was Texas’s first charter-district partnership in special education.
As with other alternative programs for students who need time away from general education settings, Brewer’s goal is to prepare students to go back to their home schools, located throughout San Antonio ISD, and be successful.
Entering its second year, the partnership appears to be working. Suspensions at the alternative campus have plummeted, and Martinez says feedback from families is positive. San Antonio ISD’s special education director said her counterparts from other districts are visiting, wanting to learn more about their creative approach to an always-challenging population of students.
Perhaps most encouraging, when Texas released 2018 school performance data, Brewer Academy met state learning targets, albeit using alternative standards.
“These are our students,” said Martinez. “We felt strongly they needed to remain part of SAISD. We just wanted to come up with a different way to meet their needs.”
Moving beyond ‘cells and bells’ learning
A former classroom teacher, Braination founder Bruce Rockstroh has spent 30 years working in schools at detention centers and residential facilities. About a decade ago, he started dreaming about perhaps doing himself out of a job by creating a school where the cascading failures that often push students into the school-to-prison pipeline don’t happen.
He’d gotten good at connecting with the toughest kids but was frustrated at his inability to truly capitalize on those connections. In the three or so months he’d have his teen students’ captive attention, he could help them catch up. Maybe patch some holes in their high school transcript.
“We felt like we were standing on the riverbanks pulling kids out and drying them off, only to throw them back in,” he says. “A black male in Texas has a 40 percent chance of graduating. If you’re a Hispanic male, it’s 50-50. That’s 1 in 2 — why aren’t we screaming about it?”
Better, obviously, to start before those dismal statistics take hold. When Rockstroh started thinking about this, he was struck by how many students made it to ninth grade already too far behind to keep up and earn credits toward graduation. So he decided to open a middle school.
As he developed a plan, Rockstroh kept hearing about guided inquiry, a form of personalized learning used by high-profile innovative schools like San Diego’s High Tech High and Minnesota’s New Visions. Students use technology to investigate their curiosities, checking in with teachers as they go.
If this level of freedom seems 180 degrees from the rigid structure of many residential educational settings, to Rockstroh it made immediate and intuitive sense that the model held promise for engaging both general education students and those who may have forgotten there can be anything engaging about school.
“We have beaten the love of learning out of troubled students,” he says. “School is a place of failure.”
The human brain is hardwired for learning, he continues, so why not start with a topic that captures a young person’s attention? If all students benefit from subject matter that’s tailored to their interests, for students in secure facilities, it might be an even bigger catalyst.
“In a residential setting, those kids have very few choices,” he explains. “They’re told when to get up, when to eat, when to go to sleep.”
About the same time he was dreaming about a new school, Rockstroh, who is an architecture buff, started building a lake house — not just any lake house, but one based on blueprints drawn by Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House.
Construction completed, Rockstroh was extolling his new house’s joys to a former colleague, an architect who had spent 10 years renovating schools, only to end up frustrated. Instead of retrofitting theories of learning to work in outdated buildings, Prakash Nair had concluded that schools needed to be built to suit their educational models.
Rockstroh’s idea for a new school, the two decided, needed a completely original kind of setting. Fast-forward a few years, and the school that was born of that conversation, the Anne Frank Inspire Academy, is physically and visually distinct from Braination’s other schools. Separated from a commercial thoroughfare by an artificial berm and a lush stand of trees, the campus at every turn feels wide open to the Texas Hill Country.
A broad front porch is shaded by a stainless-steel pergola that ushers visitors inside into a great hall known as the plaza, the gathering space traditionally at the heart of any Spanish colonial-era city.
Two stories of glass enclose the space, where middle school students work alone or in groups on projects that have caught their attention. On one end, windows frame a floor-to-ceiling panel of polished cross-cut segments of trees cut down to build the school. On the other end, a wooden lattice frames a second-story study nook known as the nest.
Across the plaza, a large screen porch looks out on a pond, a creek, and winding paths that connect the main building to similarly open elementary and high school buildings that share the same charter school campus. There’s a garden shed and workshop and, cradled high in the branches of a 200-year-old oak, a treehouse built by the host of Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters, Pete Nelson.
The openness is intentional, a carefully thought-out step away from the “cells and bells” model of education, in which teachers stand at the head of enclosed classrooms, instructing students lined up in rows of desks. Here, students are posed questions — sometimes involving a real-life issue in their school or community, or in a social or scientific arena — and asked to explain how they arrive at their answers.
By way of example, Rockstroh notes that San Antonio is located on top of an aquifer. “We’re supposed to add 1 million people in the next 10 years. We already have water restrictions throughout the year,” he says. “Now look at all the things you need to know to answer [how the city is going to address] that.”
Technology, he continues, has made it easy to find information. But schools still give short shrift to teaching the ability to analyze it.
“When you have just about anything you want to know in your hand, you’ve got to teach critical thinking, problem-solving, entrepreneurship,” he continues. “We give kids real-world, relevant problems, have them do research, propose solutions, and work in teams to test their theories.”
Anne Frank Inspire’s grounds are wired for the internet— and a discreet security system — so students can work on projects in a media lab or other breakout room or one of eight outdoor work spaces. There’s little need for classrooms when students work at their own pace, seeking out teachers when they feel the need.
“We wanted to create a smaller environment where we could build relationships with kids,” says Nino Etienne, head of the school. “We wanted to allow kids to collaborate and really express their learning through projects, through conversation, through the relationships that they build with each other.”
The first Anne Frank Inspire building, the middle school, cost nearly $6 million to build, much of which came from the charter school district’s reserve fund. Texas makes very little facilities funding available to charter schools.
The elementary and high schools cost half as much, partly because designers worked with cheaper materials, such as standard windows versus custom ones, and partly because the big expenses involved in extending infrastructure like sewers and electric service to what had been farmland came out of the middle-school construction budget.
Anne Frank Inspire’s 17,000-square-foot middle school opened in August 2014, followed by an elementary school and, finally, in the fall of 2016, a high school. Each school enrolls 150 students who run the socioeconomic gamut, from families who live in the surrounding wealthy neighborhoods to kids who commute from less prosperous parts of the city.
On Day One, teachers at Braination’s treatment and detention center schools began visiting — and brainstorming how to adapt the best innovations for their students, says Rockstroh: “That’s how the cross-pollination started.”
So how, with no treehouse to retreat to, students often enrolled for just a few weeks or months, and with more cells and bells than the most rigid school, do the residential charter schools push toward a goal of two months’ worth of academic growth for every month present?
By borrowing a tactic developed by a Harvard business school, the balanced scorecard which, in a secure facility, Rockstroh likens to a four-lane highway. One lane is an assessment of where a student is and what an appropriate goal is. Another is remediation, instruction in missing literacy and math skills.
A third lane is the student’s plan, the topics into which they would like to inquire. And the fourth is a “passing lane,” in which a student who’s zoomed past their goals can keep going.
Progress is assessed every 30 days. Some kids get into the passing lane and stay there. Hopefully, every victory will help make students happy to go back to regular school, rather than angry or anxious.
“If we can help a kid fall back in love with learning, that’s a big thing,” says Rockstroh.
Bound not by what is, but what could be
The strategy immediately resonated with San Antonio ISD’s Beth Jones, the district’s senior executive director of special education. A student can struggle with severe anxiety or have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, she notes, and be both a year or two behind and just as smart as any other student.
“It goes back to what is possible,” says Jones. “Once you do something innovative … it loosens up thinking and you start to think about what’s possible across different arenas.”
The first thing Braination asked the district to do when the two organizations started discussing a partnership was move its segregated program out of the beautiful and historic building it had been in, Pickett Academy, which had a problematic lack of sight lines and lacked rooms for therapy and outdoor space.
They moved it to a mothballed school on the city’s west side, Brewer Academy, added art therapy, Jones says, and started holding open houses for families, virtually unheard of in a secure setting. The facility has the capacity to serve 60 students, but enrollment fluctuates according to need.
The results were immediate. For the first three months of the 2017-18 school year, suspensions from the program fell 41 percent from the previous year, according to Jones.
When he visited Brewer during the past school year, Martinez was struck by how calm the school setting was. “It was the first year it wasn’t one of my top concerns,” he says. “This is the work they [Braination] do, they are specialists.”
Because federal law requires schools to serve special education students in general education settings as much of the time as possible, the goal is to return Brewer students to their home schools. Which is an arena where being part of a traditional district has an advantage over standalone alternative programs, like the ones Braination runs in other settings.
When a student is ready to go back to a regular school, Brewer staff try to position them to do well. They try to arrange for students to be placed first in their strongest subjects.
“Then we add classes that are harder,” says Jones, “so by the time it gets challenging, you have some confidence.” Others graduate, either from their home school or from Brewer.
The partnership has attracted attention from other districts struggling to serve students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
“It’s a population there’s not a lot of expertise about,” says Jones, who now hosts a steady stream of visitors. “I’ve had so many [special education] directors come to me and say, ‘Well first, can I send my students here? And how can I do something like this?’”
Jones credits Martinez for pushing the adults in the system to dream big for their students.
“He told us not to be bound by what is, but to think about what could be,” she said. “This partnership allows us to pool our resources, but it’s a San Antonio ISD school and these are San Antonio ISD students.”
From Turnaround to ‘Teaching Lab’ — How the Relay Graduate School of Education helped turn around a struggling city grade school facing state closure
Special Report by Emily Langhorne
“Good morning, scholars!” principal-in-training Jackie Navar yells, kicking off the community meeting at Ogden Elementary School, part of the 78207 zip code on San Antonio’s struggling West Side.
Hundreds of children echo Navar’s salutations.
“What’s a college-ready word for ‘good’?” Navar asks the room. Hands shoot up into the air: “Amazing.” “Fantastic.” “Great.”
“Excellent. Here’s a new one for you — ‘phenomenal.’ Can we all say that together?”
At Ogden, each school day begins with breakfast followed by community meetings like this one. Preschoolers eat in their classrooms, kindergartners through third-graders in the cafeteria, fourth- and fifth-graders in the gym, and sixth-graders upstairs. Ninety-eight percent of Ogden’s 650 students qualify as economically disadvantaged, and every one receives a free school breakfast.
“The community meeting helps our scholars start the day with a positive mindset,” says Tim Saintsing, executive director of teaching and learning labs at Relay Graduate School of Education, which was brought in to run the school after years of poor performance. “It lets students and staff reflect on our core values and our sense of self as a school. It gives us a chance to celebrate our successes and discuss our challenges.”
Today, a first- and second-grade class are being honored with attendance awards. As a prize, the students get to sing their homeroom chants, and then, in what’s known as a “thunder clap,” the room simultaneously brings their hands together once — loudly — in their honor.
“Remember,” Navar yells across the cafeteria, “If you miss school, you…”
“Miss out!” the kids shout back in unison.
It’s a vastly different atmosphere from the Ogden Elementary of 2016.
Back then, the Texas Education Agency labeled Ogden Elementary as an “improvement required” school for the fourth consecutive year. Students were significantly behind grade level. Inside the school, chaos reigned, according to staff who were there. Teachers struggled with classroom management, and students often ran in and out of class, making the hallway their playground.
With a state-enforced shutdown of the campus looming, the leadership of the San Antonio Independent School District invited the Relay Graduate School of Education to help them reimagine the school. At the start of the 2017 school year, Relay began a partnership with the district and Ogden through which Relay provided supports to the school. Relay trained and coached the principal, placed 25 resident teachers in Ogden, and helped select the new curriculum.
In the spring of 2018, the San Antonio school board voted to give Relay Lab Schools Texas operational authority over Ogden, which, beginning this school year, also includes management responsibilities.
With Relay at the helm, chaos has been replaced with structure, staff members say, discipline with engaging curriculum, and teacher turnover with a teacher pipeline.
A meaningful partnership
The Relay Graduate School of Education began in New York City and became an independent accredited graduate school of education in 2011. Relay prides itself on having an approach that thoughtfully combines theory and practice. At Relay, aspiring teachers spend an entire year in K-12 classrooms, compared to a typical 10-week student teaching experience, developing effective instructional delivery, building meaningful student relationships, and honing their student engagement skills.
The graduate school has a two-year residency program — the Relay Teaching Residency — in which teacher residents spend their first year under a master teacher, who acts as a mentor, while they earn their teaching certificate. In the second year, they transition to full-time, lead teachers with the support of the master teacher, while simultaneously earning their master’s degrees in teaching.
Over the last seven years, Relay has begun operating in 13 states. Having heard about the success of Relay, San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez decided to visit a Relay campus in Houston.
“He wanted to develop a teacher training and talent pipeline for SAISD,” Saintsing, Relay’s executive director of Lab Schools, explains. “We began to have discussions at length about what a meaningful partnership looks like. Ogden was the second-lowest performing school in the district, and the kids were really far behind. He wanted to work together to figure out a creative solution.”
The solution? Transform Ogden into a Relay Lab School. Under this partnership model, Ogden has 21 master teachers, each with a teaching resident in their classroom. One-third of the teaching residents come from the district, one-third come from the state, and the other third come from throughout the country. The program is tuition-free upon the condition that graduates work in San Antonio ISD for three years after completing the program. All of Ogden’s teachers remain school district employees.
“We are deeply embedded in the partnership with the district,” Saintsing said. “We worked closely with SAISD human resources to find our master teachers; all of Ogden’s previous staff members were invited to reapply for their position. Not all chose to do so, but those that did, received master teacher positions at Ogden.”
Successful instruction needs strong school culture
“The first year has been all about resetting culture in the building, for both students and staff,” Saintsing says.
During the summer, Ogden’s staff members attend four-week training sessions. The goal is to come together and set the vision for the “weather” of the school. Ogden’s teachers learn the importance of developing routines with students and families. Teachers have to teach kids “what school looks like,” meaning how to greet teachers, how to organize their backpacks, how to have classroom discussions. They communicate with parents every night to let them know how their “scholar” did that day.
The school day now runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, students dismiss at 12:30 p.m. so teachers can have the afternoon for professional development and collaborative planning.
“I can’t overstate how important the reset is,” says Saintsing. “You can’t do successful instruction without school culture. If you create a strong learning environment, and set the table for high quality instruction with it, you’ll see academic gains.”
During a tour of Ogden this spring,a kindergartener comes out of the cafeteria, struggling to carry his breakfast while wearing a cast. Saintsing carries his tray, and walks Jordan to Lauren Almand’s class.
Today, Felipe Alvarez, the resident teacher working under Almand, is teaching the whole group for the first time.
Jordan sits at table at the edge of the classroom where two other students are already eating their breakfasts. Late for school that morning, the pair likewise missed breakfast in the cafeteria and the community meeting. Neither teacher calls attention to Jordan’s lateness. When the girl sitting next to him finishes her breakfast, she quietly moves from the table to her desk – an established classroom procedure for tardiness.
The class is watching a video of a science experiment. Alvarez points at the gloves and goggles that the scientists are wearing. “Goggles protect our…”
“Eyes,” the class shouts.
“Glove protected our…”
“Hands,” they call back.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to do this experiment together. I’m going to alter it first so that it’s safe for you,” Alvarez says. He then holds up a beaker and explains that it has sodium bicarbonate in it, which is the scientific name for baking soda.
As he’s talking, a boy sitting near the back of the classroom becomes antsy. He stands and sits and stands again. Before long, he walks away from his desk and begins to wander around the room.
“Come here,” Alvarez says. “Looks like baking soda, doesn’t it?” The boy looks in the beaker and nods. “Good, David T. confirms that it’s baking soda. Now, go sit down so I can show you what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
Using his classroom management, Alvarez transforms what some would consider a classroom disruption into an opportunity for encouraging a student’s curiosity, perfectly showcasing Saintsing’s description of one of Relay’s core beliefs: “Teachers control the weather in their classrooms.”
Changing curriculum to change student outcomes
“A lot of the magic is our curricular choices,” Saintsing says. “If curriculum isn’t consistent schoolwide, you’ll have pockets of greatness, but not greatness as a whole.”
At Relay’s lab schools, teachers focus more on instructional delivery rather than curriculum design, leveraging pre-made lesson plans from research-based curriculum.
Because so few students were on grade-level when Relay began its work with Ogden, the school’s curriculum focuses heavily on improving fundamental reading and math skills.
Younger elementary students have three hours of literacy learning each day — one for guided reading, one for reading skills (phonetics and all things fundamental), and one for writing. Students have 90 minutes of math. There’s art and fitness daily.
Each student also has a Chromebook. Computer-based assignments are used to help students learn digital skills and self-management, not replace teacher instruction. Older students spend 80 minutes a day on reading, math, science, and writing. The first 40 minutes are spent with a teacher; the second 40 are working on a Chromebook.
Because each classroom has a master teacher and resident teacher, students receive a lot of individual attention and often learn in small groups. In one first-grade class a small group of students was reading aloud with the master teacher, while another was working on phonics with the resident teacher, and a third was working on Chromebooks.
Miles to go before we sleep
The West Side of San Antonio has historically been one of the poorest zip codes in the country. Generations of families have gone to Ogden, and it’s an important part of the community. The school currently only has one school bus for special need students; most of the kids walk because they live within the surrounding blocks.
“It was important to me that this remain a zoned, neighborhood school,” Saintsing says. He believes that every child should be entitled to a quality neighborhood school, regardless of where they live.
Keeping the school a community-centered place was an integral part of Relay’s vision for Ogden’s future. The school’s leadership seeks out unsung heroes from West San Antonio and shines a spotlight on their achievements. They invite them to be guest speakers at the community meetings.
In May, Xelena González, a children’s book author who writes stories inspired by her upbringing on the West Side, talked to the fourth- and fifth- graders at a special assembly. Not only had González grown up in the neighborhood, but she had also attended Ogden as a child.
She told the students how her fifth grade teacher made her diagram sentences — and how she hated it. She thought it “so boring.” But it helped her later, she told her young listeners, when she began learning to write more complex sentences.
These efforts are a part of the leadership’s commitment to changing the public narrative about the West Side while simultaneously inspiring students about their futures.
The school’s administration is determined to raise expectations and permanently expel the belief gap — the internalized belief that low-income students can’t excel academically —both from staff and students.
“We have a focus on college and postsecondary education because that’s where we believe our kids belong,” Saintsing says. “We refuse to celebrate kindergarten and middle school graduations. High school graduation is the minimum bar; college graduation is the expectation.”
The school is making progress. Both student test scores and school culture are moving in the right direction. Last year, the district introduced the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measure of Academic Progress exams for kindergarteners through eighth-graders. Students take the exams three times a year: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. In the 2017-2018 school year, 100 percent of kindergarteners made expected growth on the exams and students in first and second grade saw double-digit gains. After the first year of the partnership, teacher retention at Ogden was over 90 percent.
Because of its success so far, the Relay partnership model at Ogden is being replicated at Storm Elementary, another San Antonio ISD school labeled “improvement required” for multiple years in a row by the state.
Saintsing admits that there are still challenges ahead — and that progress will take time. Resetting culture has been more difficult with older students. Habits have become embedded; student buy-in is harder to come by. Teachers who work on the second floor, in the fourth- to sixth-grade classrooms, have jobs that look extremely different than those on the first floor.
These teachers focus intently on creating positive student-teacher relationships and demonstrating that the expectations for Ogden students have changed dramatically from years past..
“We’ve made progress,” Saintsing says, “And we’re proud of that, but we have miles to go before we sleep.”
Editor’s Note: This visit happened in Spring 2018, when Relay had an informal partnership with Ogden and San Antonio ISD. Since then, Relay Lab Schools Texas has signed a formal partnership with the district to operate Ogden Elementary and Storm Elementary under Senate Bill 1882, which encourages school districts to create “partnership schools” with nonprofit organizations.
The Future of School Integration — In the midst of politics and court battles, why more cities are eyeing socioeconomic diversity
Special Report by Kevin Mahnken
Sixty-four years after the landmark Brown v. Board decision, integration has regained its status as one of the most urgent objectives in education today. In the wake of a large-scale resegregation of public schools since the 1990s, a number of journalists, policy analysts, and policymakers are pushing to introduce greater diversity in public schools.
While the players differ with respect to means — the debate around whether school choice policies such as charters and vouchers mitigate or contribute to segregation burns hotter than ever — much of the reform movement is united in at least the stated aim of making schools more representative of the United States as a whole.
That goal is typically justified on academic grounds: Whether in kindergarten or college, students learn more when exposed to peers of varying backgrounds, integration advocates assert. But some also invoke the claims at the heart of the Brown-era integration debates, arguing that polarized school communities pose a threat to civil society.
“Particularly after 2016, it’s clear that our country is much more vulnerable to a demagogue who vilifies minorities when schools are racially segregated,” Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, told The 74. “When white students know few Mexican-American classmates or Muslim classmates, it’s much easier for someone to suggest that those groups are causing all your problems.”
This week, The 74 concludes its multi-part examination of San Antonio’s ambitious, class-based approach to integration. Spearheaded by Superintendent Pedro Martinez, the program identifies students using reams of family data — on income, parents’ educational attainment, homelessness, etc. — and directs them to a slate of new and coveted “schools of choice” designed to attract more affluent pupils from around the city. The experiment is playing out in the seventh-largest city in the United States, and it’s drawing attention from national education observers.
San Antonio’s policy is a big idea, but not an unprecedented one. Dozens of smaller school districts have been implementing socioeconomic integration plans for roughly two decades now. According to The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank that has loudly advocated for a class-focused approach to integration, districts and charter schools aiming for some form of heterogeneity by class now enroll nearly 4.5 million students.
‘An Elegant Legal Solution’
Kahlenberg is, quite likely, the nation’s most prominent expert on socioeconomic integration. He has written several books arguing that balkanized classrooms will produce a divided citizenry, and he energetically makes the same case in op-eds to The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Kahlenberg even consults with local officials in cities and school districts that are mulling the idea.
Like many active in the education sphere, he watched with dismay in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled against districts in Seattle and Louisville that had violated the Constitution by relying explicitly on race to dictate school assignments. It was seen as a particularly damaging blow to integration efforts. Going forward, policy entrepreneurs began to think more seriously about non-racial indicators, such as family income, as a more legally insulated alternative.
Kahlenberg insists this solution offers more than just a cover for achieving racial integration through other means.
“It’s an elegant legal solution to the … roadblock Supreme Court case in front of districts that are seeking to integrate racially,” he told The 74. “But it’s not just a cute way of getting around the Supreme Court. Socioeconomic integration also has power as an education reform strategy in its own right.”
Kahlenberg says the evidence in favor of mixed-income schools dates back to the 1966 release of the landmark Coleman Report, a foundational work of social science that found that no single factor exerted a greater influence on a student’s academic performance than the socioeconomic background of his classmates. In the decades since, scholars like Stanford’s Sean Reardon have documented the growing gaps in achievement between low-income students and their more advantaged peers — even as the disparity between white and minority students has slowly narrowed.
Individual case studies offer more evidence. In a 2010 study of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, RAND Institute policy researcher Heather Schwartz found that poor students who were randomly assigned to attend low-poverty elementary schools ended up drastically outperforming their peers who attended schools with higher rates of poverty. By the end of elementary school, low-income kids enrolled in the district’s more affluent schools significantly reduced their achievement gaps in math and reading compared with their non-poor classmates.
Kahlenberg said that the lesson of successful integration efforts like Montgomery County was “not that there was some benefit to being in a school that had students whose skin color was white. It’s that there are benefits to being in a middle-class as opposed to a high-poverty environment where your classmates expect to go on to college, where parents are in a position to be actively involved in school affairs, and where you tend to get the strongest, most experienced teachers.”
Even more than the pure academic effects, Kahlenberg says that the civic impact of truly diverse schools — in terms of race, class, ethnicity, and immigration and ability status — can’t be overstated. Given the fraught social atmosphere of the past decade, he says that it’s more important than ever to cultivate schools as meeting grounds for children of different backgrounds.
“I think it is an idea whose time has come, in part because we’ve had a wake-up call on the need for public schools to create good democratic citizens, and segregated schools undercut our desire to foster democratic values. … Integration underlines the message that we are all political equals. Segregation can tend to make privileged groups feels superior, which is deeply disruptive in a democracy.”
How It’s Done
One of America’s pioneering systems of socioeconomic integration is found in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Home to the marble halls of Harvard and MIT, and known to locals as the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the progressive bastion faced a challenge in the 1970s: Voluntarily integrate its schools, or do so at the threat of state sanction.
The scarring battle over compulsory busing in Boston was kicked off by a 1974 order from a federal judge. Much larger and more segregated than neighboring Cambridge, the city exploded in protest against the mandate; riots and arrests were a regular feature on local news, and the episode crystallized a kind of national weariness with the civil rights struggle that had been waged since the 1950s. Cambridge was determined to avoid the same nightmare.
“Of course, the mantra was, ‘We’re not going to be another Boston,’” Michael Alves, then a desegregation specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Education, told The 74. “You’ve got to understand the trauma of Boston of being convicted in a federal court and everything that followed. Nobody wanted to end up like Boston, so that was a strong impetus to desegregate and voluntarily develop a plan that could be approved by the state.”
Alves helped Cambridge devise a dramatically different model that they dubbed “controlled choice.” Beginning in 1981, all 12 of the city’s K-8 schools were effectively converted to magnet schools. Parents ranked choices for where to enroll their kindergartners (existing elementary and middle school students were permitted to remain in the school where they were enrolled, though many opted to switch), and the district placed them with the aim of achieving a racial balance that resembled the city as a whole.
The system proved a success both in granting parental preference and in achieving racial balance. Roughly 90 percent of families received a school assignment from their top three options, and about 75 percent received their top choice. Meanwhile, within five years of the program’s inception, all but one of the district’s K-8 schools fell within 5 percent of Cambridge’s overall racial breakdown. School-level integration, it seemed, could be attained without attracting a hail of rocks.
But obstacles lay in store. By the 1990s, a flurry of lawsuits in state court alleged that various public school districts had employed illegal racial preferences. The city’s lawyers advised the school board that, to get on steadier legal ground, they should switch to another metric to guide school assignment. Class offered a natural proxy.
Beginning in the 2002-03 school year, the formerly race-based system of school choice was replaced with one hinging on free and reduced-price lunch status, a common barometer of poverty. Within three years, 10 of the city’s 12 K-8 schools were substantially integrated on class lines, falling within 15 percentage points of the district average for free lunch eligibility. And a remarkable portion of families, approaching 90 percent, were still receiving their top-choice school.
Alves says that racial integration is “a national imperative in this country,” and he feels that a truly diverse school will reflect the multifarious identities that students bring from home — whether class-related, ethnic, or otherwise. But he argues that a well-executed socioeconomic integration plan can effect substantial racial integration through non-racial means. And in a city like Cambridge, where the middle- and upper-class children of Ivy League professors are often black or Asian, he says that some accounting must be made for class differences within racial groups.
“Socioeconomics are not a substitute for race,” he conceded. “But you get inside of race, looking at the intra-racial socioeconomics. If you look at the socioeconomics of African Americans — certainly, [they are] still disproportionately poor, but they have a middle class and a black elite. When you can see that, that’s a major breakthrough, because … you can identify the children most at risk and the children least at risk, and both get access to high-quality schools.”
How to Identify Class?
Not everyone agrees with Alves. William Darity is a professor of economics, public policy, and African-American studies at Duke who has conducted research into integration programs. He believes that socioeconomic integration, while an improvement over a traditional neighborhood-based assignment regime, is nevertheless a regrettable step back from the openly race-based desegregation efforts of the 1960s and ’70s.
In an interview with The 74, Darity lamented the use of socioeconomic metrics as “a mechanism for avoiding having to use explicit race-based assignment.” He referred to America’s long, pre-Brown history of enrolling students according to the color of their skin, noting the irony of whites only complaining once race was used as a tool to bring children together rather than keep them apart. “People weren’t complaining about race-based assignment in schools in the 1920s,” he said.
With a team of researchers from Duke, Morgan State, and the University of North Carolina, Darity studied the socioeconomic integration program used in Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the state capital of Raleigh. Though much larger than Cambridge — during the period under consideration, Wake was one of the 10 fastest-growing counties in the country — the community’s story is similar to that of the People’s Republic: When its generally successful racial integration system faced legal troubles in the 1990s, district officials switched to class considerations. Going forward, they decreed, each school should aim to enroll no more than 40 percent students eligible for reduced-price lunch, and no more than 25 percent who read below grade level.
Some backlash followed, and the district’s fast-growing enrollment made drawing school boundaries a regular challenge. Overall, however, county schools became notably more socioeconomically diverse than the state average, and the plan won the enthusiastic support of the business community.
What’s more, the immediate impact on achievement was heartening. According to Darity’s study, racial gaps between white and minority students narrowed after the integration system was put into place, and test scores improved in comparison with those in other districts.
Still, Darity maintained that integration on class lines is “not a perfect substitute for race-based school assignment.” If race is barred as a factor in student assignment considerations, he says, the best alternative metric would be family wealth. While huge segments of the population, both white and non-white, are eligible for free lunch, the gap in average household wealth between white and black families is a far more precise measure of disadvantage, he says.
“If you were to use wealth instead of income, that would create a closer connection between race and socioeconomic status. But typically in these kinds of school assignment plans, nobody talks about wealth as opposed to income.”
In a dramatic turn, the county’s integration plan was curtailed in 2010, after a newly elected conservative school board opted to return to a neighborhood-based assignment system. Though the new board was itself swept out of office shortly thereafter, its replacements left in place many of its changes, and local data indicate a surge in the number of high-poverty schools in the years that followed.
Alves, who was consulted by the school board in 2011, says that local leadership is the sine qua non of building lasting equity.
“When you’re not under federal court order anymore, all these plans we’re talking about — socioeconomic or racial — have to be approved by some governing body: the mayor, the school board, whatever. And over time, other mayors come in, school board elections, new superintendents. So it’s always a challenge.”
‘Shifting the Power’ in Texas — How three San Antonio school districts are benefitting from the expanded autonomy and innovation made possible through the state’s ‘System of Great Schools’ initiative
Special Report by Bekah McNeel
In Texas, it’s safe to say that all eyes are on San Antonio ISD. The high-poverty district has made the most of a united board, a change-friendly superintendent, and a team of ambitious leaders to improve schools one by one in some of the city’s poorest zip codes. Along the way they’ve inflamed their union, what Superintendent Pedro Martinez sees as the inevitable consequence of a “shift in the power base.”
But San Antonio ISD isn’t the only Texas district realigning its own stars. It’s part of a statewide initiative the Texas Education Agency began two years ago to help districts transition away from a traditional model — a school system operated by its central administration and board of trustees. The System of Great Schools model, instead, wants to see autonomous schools operated by whoever can deliver results, be it districts, charter networks, nonprofits, or universities.
“These districts will be positioned to take bold actions to improve schools and provide parents with the schools and programs they desire,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a press release when the program launched. “The goal is to ensure every child has access to a high-quality learning environment.”
Texas wants to “to build the capacity of districts to create the type of high-quality, best-fit schools that their community wants and deserves,” Joe Siedlecki, the state’s associate commissioner of school improvement, innovation, and charters, told The 74.
Siedlecki’s department looks for district superintendents and school boards who are already interested in bringing more options to parents but don’t have the tools they need to do so effectively.
“Most have joined [the program] because they know their parents want more options,” Siedlecki said. “Once they do, the agency will provide support and technical assistance.”
School boards, meanwhile, would have one job — to authorize and close schools based on their performance. Most central administrations would likely need to restructure in order to meet the needs of autonomous schools.
So far, two groups of eight districts throughout the state have gone through the yearlong System of Great Schools training. Three are in San Antonio, where a rapidly expanding charter sector and northward sprawl have left urban districts struggling to compete. San Antonio ISD and South San Antonio ISD were part of the first group, and Edgewood ISD has joined the second.
The System of Great Schools method is a combination of four “levers” or strategies. Ultimately the goal is campus autonomy, but there’s more than one way to get there.
San Antonio and South San Antonio ISD have fully embraced the model, though each is rolling it out in a different way. San Antonio ISD, with its 50,000 students in the urban core of the city, is pulling all levers at once. South San Antonio, which serves just under 10,000 students in a more sparsely populated quadrant of the city, is systematically moving from one lever to the next. Edgewood, which is currently under state sanction and on its fourth superintendent in three years, is in the early stages of the System of Great Schools training. Administrators there hope it could help revive the tiny district, which has a long history of struggle against generational poverty.
All three San Antonio districts have been losing students to charter schools and surrounding suburban districts, which leaves their budgets in crisis. Superintendents see the options created by the System of Great Schools approach as the best hope for bringing students back.
Lever One: Set expectations
The first strategic step encourages districts to create a performance framework for schools as they gain autonomy. This works best if every school eventually becomes accountable to the same standard, whether it’s a neighborhood school, a specialized or magnet campus, or a charter network operating within the System of Great Schools.
So far, San Antonio ISD is the only San Antonio district to open its doors to charter networks. Democracy Prep Public Schools and Relay Graduate School of Education are already operating turnaround campuses in the district. Other charter networks have come in to assist with credit recovery programs and special education.
Democracy Prep and Relay have two years to show significant gains, or else lose their charter. If they succeed, they will likely be given the opportunity to expand. It may not need to be said, but this is where things got hairy for San Antonio ISD and its union. Charter operators often demand to hold the contracts for school employees. While Relay’s staff at the long-struggling Ogden Elementary School remained district employees, the staff at the school Democracy Prep took over are not unionized district workers.
San Antonio ISD also has other “in-district charter schools,” designed and operated by its own staff. Those should be subject to the same rigorous standards, the district’s chief innovation officer, Mohammed Choudhury, argued.
The performance agreement, which is still in development, can’t create a “double standard” for some partnerships just because they were more controversial, he said.
In South San Antonio, where the rollout of the System of Great Schools has been much quieter, the district will likely start with a performance agreement, to be adopted in 2019. It will apply to all campuses, and principals will know that if they fail to meet the standards, the board can decide to redesign the school, bring in new leadership, or even bring in a new operator.
Lever Two: Expand what works, close what doesn’t, try new things
To implement the System of Great Schools model as the state intends, boards have to be swift to pull the second lever: replicating what works and closing schools that don’t.
“Closing” schools is likely an inaccurate way to describe the process.
More often, a new operator or charter will be put in place, and the school building will keep its doors open. That’s how it happened at P.F. Stewart Elementary in San Antonio ISD, which opened in August 2018 as Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary. New uniforms, new principal, new expectations, but the same building serving the same students.
“Same students” was a sticking point for his district, Superintendent Martinez said.
The System of Great Schools model allows districts to decide which, if any, operations will stay with the central administration or school board. In San Antonio ISD, Martinez showed that he’s willing to trade hiring and firing power and other personnel oversight, which Democracy Prep wanted to control, for enrollment, which Choudhury’s office determines.
Too often, Martinez said, kids who left to attend local charter schools didn’t “fit the mold” and ended up back in the district, discouraged. San Antonio ISD schools will not get to create a profile for the kind of students they will serve.
“I would never allow people to treat our children that way,” Martinez said. If Democracy Prep, Relay, and other charter partners are the difference-makers they are purported to be, he says, they can do it with kids from the neighborhood.
Critics still say that changing operators will destabilize the school, but Martinez and Choudhury point out that consistency isn’t helpful if it’s consistently failing.
While campuses like Stewart and Ogden will remain neighborhood schools, other campuses within San Antonio ISD are based entirely on open enrollment. Specialized schools like the Advanced Learning Academy (which offers a gifted and talented program that doesn’t screen students), Steele Montessori, and a growing number of dual language academies rely solely on families applying to an enrollment lottery. This has allowed the district to attract middle-class families back into the district, while still reserving seats for student from the highest-poverty neighborhoods in the district. Each of these “diverse by design” schools has a waiting list.
San Antonio ISD’s neighborhood schools can also apply to become autonomous “in-district charters” with special curriculum and calendars. With support from two-thirds of campus teachers and parents, principals can totally redesign their school to make it work for their students.
These do not necessarily become open enrollment schools, Choudhury explained, just great neighborhood options.
In South San Antonio ISD, the district has magnetized its three middle schools, creating academies for the arts, health careers, and STEM education. It also opened an early college high school. Already, chief academic officer Delinda Castro said, families are responding. Of the 728 rising sixth-graders in the district, 370 are participating in magnet programs.
“We were very surprised at how many kids and parents chose our academies,” Castro said.
Lever Three: Connect with families
Lever three of the System of Great Schools model charges districts with ensuring families have the information and access they need to take advantage of school choice within the district.
Here, Choudhury said, districts using the System of Great Schools model have to be proactive if they want all students to benefit.
“If you want equity and access, you have to design for equity and access,” Choudhury has said on numerous occasions.
A single enrollment process can allow parents to apply to multiple open-enrollment schools with one — hopefully simple — online or app-based form. But it has to go further, Choudhury said.
Enrollment offices like his have to commit to door-to-door, bilingual parent engagement and a persistent follow-up campaign to make sure that students are not sorted between those whose parents have time to follow up and those who are working around the clock to provide for their families.
Transportation is another non-negotiable, Choudhury said. San Antonio does not have an efficient public transit system, so the district, which encompasses 90 schools, has to modify bus routes to allow students to cross the district if necessary.
Lever Four: Make it stick
Once the groundwork for school autonomy is laid, districts can pull the fourth lever. Continued school autonomy will require the central administration and board to provide support and funding accordingly.
The model works best when funding follows the student, according to guidance documents from the Texas Education Agency.
In the System of Great Schools model, a district’s central administration would be one of many options for principals and school leaders to choose from when selecting support services, curriculum, and professional development. At South San Antonio ISD, that means competing on the open market, said Castro.
“It’s a reframing of central office,” Castro said. “We’re here to serve schools, not the other way around.”
When Superintendent Martinez referred to a “shift in power,” he was talking about his teachers union. San Antonio ISD teachers have the most protective contracts in the state, and those are in jeopardy at each autonomous school.
In South San Antonio, where teachers have never had protective contracts, the challenge will be shifting power away from the elected school board, which has a history of micromanagement.
So where does all that power go? In the System of Great Schools model, it goes to the principals.
Because few districts are going to start hiring from scratch, most will need to consider how to get their existing fleet of principals ready to take on more responsibility.
The system won’t work, Choudhury said, if the district just turns everyone loose and leaves them to do whatever they want with their campus. Autonomy is the goal, but it may be a gradual process for some.
It’s still early, with no conclusive evidence that the System of Great Schools model is going to be a panacea for districts like San Antonio, South San Antonio, and Edgewood ISD. It does, however, free them to try new things until they find what works. That, school leaders say, is a welcome change.
What Other Cities & Districts Can Learn From San Antonio’s Portfolio of Schools
Special Report by Robin Lake
The term “portfolio district” has taken on a life of its own these days. For some, it refers to places with a lot of charter schools and some coordination function. For others, it means having many district-run schools with themes. At the Center on Reinventing Public Education, it’s neither of those.
Rather, the portfolio strategy is what we often call a problem-solving framework. By that, we mean that the role of government (school districts, charter authorizers, etc.) is concentrated on identifying unmet student and family needs and then working to ensure that a portfolio of learning opportunities is responsive to those needs. The portfolio approach is governance-neutral. It doesn’t matter whether schools are governed by charters, the district, or some other arrangement. What matters is whether the school has the capacity to deliver better options for students and families.
The San Antonio Independent School District, under the leadership of Pedro Martinez and his team, exemplifies this problem-solving mentality.
When families voiced concerns that their kids weren’t adequately prepared to get high-paying jobs, the district asked educators and civic leaders to propose new school designs to help students develop leadership and other marketable skills valued by local businesses. CAST Tech High school, an “in-district” charter school, works with industry partners on technology and entrepreneurial careers by focusing on real-world problem-solving, internships, and mentorships.
When people worried that allowing families to choose among these new schools would further segregate the city along class and income lines, central office leaders designed lottery rules for new magnet and charter schools to give low-income families preference and promote integration.
And rather than relying solely on national charter operators, San Antonio ISD gave talented school staff and principals the opportunity to redesign their own schools. While some districts complain that they don’t have enough principals to run innovative and autonomous schools, San Antonio ISD gave their most talented principals oversight over small networks of two or more redesigned schools, with associate principals assigned to each campus. This allows high-performing school leaders to maximize their impact, while also mentoring colleagues who can help form a leadership pipeline.
San Antonio still has many problems to solve. To deal with the confusion caused by having 17 school districts and growing choices in the surrounding area, families need more help with information and enrollment. Many district schools have struggled to educate kids to high levels. But if things continue to go as they have — district officials, working with local businesses and school staff to identify problems and then find creative solutions — I have high hopes for continued and sustainable improvement and a rapidly expanding portfolio of opportunities for San Antonio students.
Reporter’s Notebook, Animated: ‘In 20 years of failed integration efforts I’ve never seen anything like this’
San Antonio ISD’s approach can offer lessons for districts around the country confronting similar challenges — like developing talented school leaders, giving students more opportunities to earn meaningful job skills, and helping families navigate a growing array of options. There is no one portfolio “model” for cities to follow. Instead, cities should use the portfolio concept to address local needs and to leverage local talent.
What all portfolio cities share is a commitment to the school as the locus of improvement and accountability, a concept Martinez came to believe in based on his own experience as a district leader. Educators and families, not distant central office leaders, should be empowered to address student needs in the way they think best. The central office then can focus on equity, outcomes, and making sure that families can easily find the best fit.
Video Tour — Meet 10 of the educators, parents and students leading San Antonio’s push for integrated schools
By virtually any statistical measure, San Antonio is the most economically segregated city in the United States. Its poorest neighborhood, zip code 78207, is located a scant few miles from the epicenter of the third-fastest-growing economy in the country. But as the city as a whole thrives, the residents on the West Side are all but locked out of the boom. Into this divided landscape three years ago came a new schools chief, Pedro Martinez, with a mandate to break down the centuries-old economic isolation that has its heart in the 78207. In response, Martinez launched one of America’s most innovative and data-informed school integration experiments.
To achieve the kind of integration he was looking for, he would first have to better understand the gradations of poverty in each and every one of his schools, what kinds of supports those student populations require, and then find a way to woo affluent families from other parts of the city into San Antonio ISD schools to disrupt these concentrations of unmet need. Martinez’s strategy: Open new “schools of choice” with sought-after curricular models, like Montessori and dual language, and set aside a share of seats for students from neighboring, more prosperous school districts, who would then sit next to a mix of students from San Antonio ISD, where 93 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been publishing Beth Hawkins’s immersive deep-dive into the SAISD integration initiative and the many different kinds of classrooms that have opened in the district as a result. You can read her full launch feature here, and watch her detailed explainer video of the effort right here.
Today we’re also rounding up the many video tours and first-person profiles we filmed over the course of reporting this story. Below, 10 snapshots of the people guiding San Antonio ISD’s remarkable integration effort:
Diverse By Design — Meet the Architect: As Mohammed Choudhury tells it, Superintendent Pedro Martinez was never going to convince him to leave Dallas Public Schools for the San Antonio Independent School District without making clear his commitment to creating schools that would have inclusion and diversity as part of their DNA. It is not enough, Choudhury argues, to create wonderful innovative new schools that succeed in attracting more well-off families to your struggling school district if the district’s own most disadvantaged students are shut out of those schools.
Choudhury, whose title is chief innovation officer, created an enrollment system that ensures that students from all of San Antonio ISD’s so-called income blocks, from those whose families are on the edges of the middle class to those living in extreme poverty, are guaranteed a percentage of the seats in these sought-after schools. In this one-on-one interview, Choudhury explains the key factors needed to create diverse-by-design schools and how, once the schools are opened and the equity enrollment practices are in place, San Antonio ISD officials hit the pavement to make sure their impoverished families know to apply. (Watch the full video)
‘They Had to Shake Things Up’ for Our Poorest Kids — One Mom’s Take: Cristina Noriega’s father grew up in one of the poorest zip codes in the United States, where the local high school didn’t expect all of its students to graduate and where going on to college was almost unheard of. Lionel Sosa started out as a sign painter, but then a twist of fate propelled him to a career as a marketing genius who made a fortune and a national name advising Fortune 500 companies and presidential candidates. He was able to send his daughter, Noriega, to Yale University. Now, both father and daughter are eager for a radical and ambitious plan to dramatically increase the number of impoverished Latino students the San Antonio Independent School District gets to and through college to succeed.
For them, the value of creating diverse-by-design schools — with the kinds of cutting-edge academic models that usually come with private school tuition — is intensely personal. Noriega has dreams for her own daughters — and for children growing up in the 78207, where the lack of opportunity her father struggled to overcome persists. “Of course it’s the poorest children and the lowest-performing that have to wait the longest,” she says, trying and failing to hold back tears. “I mean, you don’t know if it’s going to work. You hope.” Noriega is grateful that San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his leadership team have moved as quickly as possible to end the wait for the city’s most isolated and fragile children. “They did what they had to do,” she says in this moving video. “They had to shake things up big-time.” (Watch the full video)
The Visionary — One-on-One With Pedro Martinez: When Pedro Martinez took the top job overseeing the San Antonio Independent School District, he knew he had to confront the pervasive poverty affecting 93 percent of his student body. So he launched an intricate plan to go block by block in his district, measuring household income and developing trauma supports. He then launched one of America’s most radical school integration experiments, balancing students from different rungs of poverty with more affluent kids that he wooed back into the district via innovative school designs. As his classrooms have become more socioeconomically diverse, student achievement has rebounded. Here, he tells The 74 more about his unique approach to lifting all boats:
The First New School — Inside Advanced Learning Academy, Where Gifted & Talented Is Open for All: Advanced Learning Academy had a waiting list even before the first day it opened in August 2016. It was the first school of choice created in the San Antonio Independent School District by Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who saw offering a gifted and talented program that did not use screened admissions as a way to draw more affluent families from outside the district while providing the kind of “higher order” learning shown to be invaluable in raising academic achievement.
Such approaches are typically not available to students of color because they are rarely screened for gifted and talented programs. (Watch the full video)
Integrating Schools While Celebrating Heritage — Inside Mark Twain Dual Language Academy: Growing up, Cristina Noriega heard the stories about how her father was punished for speaking Spanish at school. Sometimes Lionel Sosa’s teacher would strike his knuckles with a ruler. One time, he couldn’t find the right English words to ask permission to use the bathroom and wet his pants in class. By the time Sosa was raising his own children, the family spoke mostly English. When the San Antonio Independent School District announced it was opening a dual language academy where children would be taught using the “cognitive magic” of bilingual education, Noriega leaped to enroll her daughters, Luz and Paloma. Part of an ambitious and unprecedented effort to integrate the district’s schools using household income, Mark Twain Dual Language Academy quickly filled up with Mexican-American families eager to see their children become not just bilingual but bicultural.
“What a gift to my kids,” says Noriega, now president of the school’s parent-teacher organization and a vocal supporter of San Antonio ISD’s plan to create dynamic new schools and ensure the city’s most impoverished children are fairly represented in them. “Not only to speak Spanish from an early age but to be valued. What a cool thing.” Take a tour of Mark Twain Dual Language Academy with Noriega and Principal David Garcia. (Watch the full video)
How Our Public Montessori Program Made Us Rethink Integration & Special Ed — One Family’s Perspective: When Lexa Rijos and Jamie Roadman bought a picture-perfect bungalow in San Antonio’s historic Highland Park neighborhood, they didn’t have kids and so didn’t think to investigate the local schools. Four years ago, when Santiago was born, that changed. The San Antonio Independent School District didn’t have a great reputation, so Rijos and Roadman imagined they would have to move away from their funky urban haunts or somehow find the money for private school tuition. Rijos was investigating preschools for Santiago when she noticed a Facebook post announcing a new San Antonio ISD public Montessori school. When she clicked on the link, she was amazed to learn that Steele Montessori Academy was opening just down the street and enrolling children as young as 3. Now the couple walk their son to school every morning and go back often at night for school-wide family activities.
One of the things the family appreciates is the fact that Steele intentionally recruits and enrolls students whose families come from a range of income levels, as well as children with disabilities. Montessori’s methods were originally created to help develop self-regulation skills in children with intellectual or developmental delays. In Santiago’s mixed-age classroom it’s impossible for visitors to tell which students receive special education services. Steele is one of 31 dynamic and diverse-by-design schools that anchor San Antonio ISD’s plan to use a carefully calibrated combination of socioeconomic integration and school choice to break up concentrations of poverty in the district’s schools and ensure that when students graduate they are ready to go to college and stay until they earn a degree. As they’ve watched Santiago become more confident and independent — taking charge of getting himself ready for school, for example — Rijos and Roadman have become Montessori ambassadors. (Watch the full video)
Video Tour — San Antonio’s Steele Montessori: When San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez asked Principal Laura Christenberry to open a public Montessori school — a sure-fire enrollment draw for families from outside the district — she had a condition. Montessori education was originally created to teach children with disabilities, and Christenberry wanted special education students to be well represented at Steele Montessori Academy. And she wanted to extend the philosophy of inclusion — which says everybody is a full participant, no matter what — to all of the families with kids at Steele. Which meant creating a school community where all families are welcomed and involved, and middle-class parents don’t dominate.
Martinez’s invitation to open the school was part of a radical school integration effort, in which families from some of the most isolated and impoverished neighborhoods in the country are guaranteed fair access to a portfolio of innovative and high-performing schools. Based on census data laying out household incomes for every block in the district, San Antonio ISD has pioneered an unprecedented system for enrolling its new diverse-by-design schools. Student achievement is rising, and Christenberry is seeing her dream realized. Meet Christenberry and watch some of Steele’s littlest scholars engage in Montessori activities — watch the full video.
The Next Wave — In San Antonio’s Poorest Neighborhood a New School Rises, Built Around Global Studies & New Horizons: Ambika Dani, who came to San Antonio by way of Lagos, Nigeria, and Bangalore, India, made up her mind pretty quickly after arriving that what she wanted to do was open a school. After going through an intensive, Boston-based fellowship for charter school leaders, Dani came back to San Antonio and decided her school would be located in the 78207, the city’s poorest zip code.
Four of the nine elementary schools located in the 78207 were on the state’s failing list, and almost half of residents 25 and older did not graduate high school. Dani’s school would have a focus on global studies. Why? “This zip code is their world. I believe that if our children in this community never get to see the world outside of their community, they never get to see what it is that they can become,” she explains. Dani’s Promesa Academy (promesa means “promise” in Spanish) was one of 21 charter schools proposed in the winter of 2017 and one of only four approved by the state. Hers was the only one to get the green light in San Antonio, a city where nearly 40,000 families applied for seats in schools run by its three biggest charter networks in 2017-18. (Watch the full video)
A New State of Mind — Lionel Sosa Talks About Why Latinos’ Family-First Instincts Must Balance With Growing Beyond Zip Code: Lionel Sosa remembers many things about growing up in San Antonio’s most impoverished neighborhood, the 78207. Being humiliated as a very young child when he was not permitted to use his Spanish in school and could not figure out how to ask to go the bathroom in English fast enough to avoid an accident. Going to Lanier High School at a time when “the courses they offered to high school students were paint and body shop, carpentry, printing, body and fender, upholstery. They were preparing the Mexican kids to do the work that Mexican kids should do.” Three people from his 180-member graduating class went on to college. He was not one of them. Nonetheless, Sosa had a remarkable career, writing the definitive book on marketing to Latinos, advising presidents and the heads of Fortune 500 companies, and becoming a nationally recognized portrait artist. At 79, he has 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom live in the 78207. These days, Sosa runs a nonprofit intent on making sure that the city’s Latino students and their families pursue every opportunity to excel academically, enroll in and graduate from college, and break the cycle of poverty that has persisted here since before he was a boy.
As he explains in this candid conversation, the instinct to put family first has to be balanced with the need to go beyond the neighborhood. “But many folks take the wrong turn in how to help their family. They drop out of school early, they go get a job, and then remain in a low-paying job all their lives, creating yet another generation that’s living in poverty, or close to poverty. That’s got to change.”
Watch The 74 Documentary — Sights & Sounds From Our Time in The 78207: San Antonio is the nation’s seventh-largest city in population and has its third-fastest-growing economy, but ranks 35th in wealth. It’s a vibrant, culturally and historically rich boomtown that also happens to be the most economically segregated city in America. Nowhere are these stark disparities more evident than in the 78207, the Mexican-American community that has been systematically and geographically isolated from the larger city’s prosperity for decades. The 78207 is also the heart of the San Antonio Independent School District, whose 50,000 students and 90 schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez took charge of three years ago. A Mexican-American immigrant himself who grew up in Chicago, Martinez thought he knew poverty, both personally and professionally as an educator committed to eradicating it, but what he found in the 78207 was shocking. The poverty here was so pervasive, so dense, and so depriving of opportunities for kids and families that Martinez knew he had to do something different. Here is the story of what he did and how it transformed San Antonio ISD: from creating one-of-a-kind maps that broke down the data behind each of his school’s poverty levels, to opening specialized schools of choice that attracted affluent families from outside the district for the first time, to designing a sophisticated enrollment system that made sure the district’s neediest students got their share of the seats.
First and foremost, Martinez fought to change the conversation around academic achievement and college graduation for the 78207 and all his students. Since then, the district had its highest high school graduation rate ever in 2017, more than 55 percent of those students attend college, the percentage attending top-tier colleges has doubled, and the percentage of students who scored college-ready on the SAT has soared by 150 percent. “Our first goal,” Martinez said, “was to redefine excellence.”
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Video Credits: Produced by Beth Hawkins, Heather Martino and Ronni Thomas; Edited by James Fields
Disclosures: The George W. Brackenridge Foundation provided financial support for this project to The 74. The Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Karsh Family Foundation, and Jon Sackler provide financial support to both KIPP and The 74.